Capuchin Martyrs (1915; 1917)
Recognising the martyrdom of Br. Leonard Melki and Br. Thomas Saleh, Capuchin friars of the Custody of the Near East (Lebanon and Syria). Beatified in Beirut, Lebanon, June 4, 2022.
In the region of Mesopotamia and throughout the Ottoman Empire there occurred episodes of persecutions and hostility toward Christians, beginning as early as 1893 with massacres organized or prompted by the central government. With the outbreak of the First World War, the persecution against the Church became more widespread, systematic and fierce, revealing a plan of mass deportation and extermination, and thus becoming the “first genocide of the twentieth century” (declaration of St. John Paul II and Kerekin II, September 27, 2001). The killings began during the night between April 23 and 24, 1915 in Constantinople, when the first arrests were carried out among the Armenian elite. In this Medz Yeghern (the “great crime” or the “great evil”), more than one and a half million Christians (Armenians, Syrians, Chaldeans, Assyrians and Greeks) died. With them, many bishops, priests, men and women religious and foreign missionaries were led to their death, without any trial, including the two Blesseds – on two different dates and places, but in similar circumstances.
Blessed Leonard (born Youssef Houais) Melki was born in the Lebanese village of Baabdath (in the Metn region) between the end of September and the beginning of October 1881, the seventh of eleven children. He was probably baptized on October 8th of the same year and was later confirmed on November 19, 1893. Attracted by the example of the friars, he decided to become a Capuchin and a missionary. On April 28, 1895, he entered the minor seminary of St. Stephen near Constantinople, belonging to the Apostolic Institute of the East. There, he received the Capuchin habit on July 2, 1899 and made his first profession on July 2, 1900. In Buca, near Smyrna, he completed his philosophical and theological studies, professed his perpetual vows on July 2, 1903 and was ordained a priest on December 4, 1904. Completing his final examinations on April 23, 1906, he was assigned to the mission of Mesopotamia.
His missionary apostolate extended between the cities of Mardin, Mamouret-ul-Aziz and Orfa, where he dedicated himself zealously to hearing confession, preaching, teaching, school management, youth ministry, the Franciscan Third Order and other such fraternities, with a few short stays of convalescence in his native village. On December 5, 1914 there occurred the first raid of the military on the Capuchin church at Mardin, followed later by acts of violence and harassment against the missionaries, which finally culminated with the order relinquishing their presence there. Br Leonard decided at the last moment to stay with his 80 year old brother rather than leave him alone propter caritatem, despite the danger. On June 5, 1915, the Blessed was arrested and savagely tortured for six days, in an attempt to make him renounce his faith and embrace the Islamic religion. On June 11th, the feast of the Sacred Heart, he was placed at the head of a caravan of 416 men, thus starting a long journey of deportation that would end in Diyarbakir. Among the deportees was also Blessed Ignace Maloyan, Armenian Catholic Archbishop of Mardin. Halfway along this long journey, after refusing once again to renounce their faith, they were all slaughtered in the place called Kalaat Zirzawane, and their bodies thrown into wells and caves.
His life as a missionary took him to the towns of Mardin, Kharput and Diyarbakir, where he dedicated himself zealously to hearing confessions, preaching, teaching, school management, youth ministry and the Franciscan Third Order. On December 22, 1914 he and his confrere were expelled, along with number of nuns, from their presence in Diyarbakir, taking refuge in Urfa. For two years, he bravely faced police harassment and survived two waves of Christian massacres in the city. He was arrested on January 4, 1917 with his brothers on charges of hiding an Armenian priest who was the head of his community in the friary, sparing him from certain death and possessing a weapon — the latter of which was a false accusation. These charges resulted in a death sentence for the Blessed of God. Dragged from one place to another, he suffered all sorts of violence and mistreatment, falling ill with typhus. Arriving in Marash, and by that time exhausted, he likely died on January 18, 1917, having exhorted his companions to trust in the Lord and having again begged Jesus in the Eucharist to be able to bear the sufferings of the Armenian priest.
The marked and meaningful witness of faith and heroic charity of the Blesseds of God Leonard Melki and Thomas Saleh can also be a sign for the Church today of the urgent need to proclaim the Gospel even to places most difficult and farthest away, despite dangers and persecutions. It was through their courageous fidelity to Christ, to their identity as consecrated persons and to their vocation as missionaries that these two Blesseds were able to submit themselves as “the wheat of God ground by the teeth of the wild beasts to become the pure bread of Christ” (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans 4:1) — light of the world and salt of the earth.