ssc&D10Prior to the Second Vatican Council and other freewheeling reforms of the 1960s, observant Catholics used to set aside a few moments on September 27 to acknowledge the martyrdom of Saints Cosmas and Damian, who were beheaded during the Diocletian Persecution, somewhere in the vicinity of A.D. 303. The traditional calendar of saints listed September 27 as a festum semiduplex, one of the lesser feasts that mark the undulations of the year. For the past four decades, however, the Feast of Sts. Cosmas and Damian have been downgraded to the category of “optional feasts,” and the headless twins have seen their feast day moved up to September 26.

Despite their relative obscurity in the canon of saints, Cosmas and Damian died spectacularly. Born in Arabia and educated in Syria, the brothers lived as healers in Aegea (in modern Celicia in eastern Turkey), where which they accepted no payment and thus became known as the “silverless” (anargyroi). According to legend, they performed the first limb transplant in medical history, grafting the black leg of a dead Ethiop onto the white body of a diseased Moor — a miraculous scene commemorated in numerous paintings of the brothers. Denounced as Christians by two fellow doctors, Cosmas and Damian were rendered into the custody of Lysias, governor of Aegea, who ordered their torture on the expectation that they would either deny or recant their faith. After several unsuccessful rounds of brutalization — during which the brothers survived drowning, roasting, flaying, and crucifixion — Lysias at last ordered their heads to be severed from their bodies. Over the next few centuries, Cosmas and Damian emerged as the patron saints of physicians and surgeons as well as (in later years) hairdressers, barbers, midwives and apothecaries. Sometime before the tenth century, their skulls appeared in Rome and became the objects of the usual forms of reliquary veneration. In 1581, the skulls were moved to the Convent of the Clares in Madrid, where they currently reside.

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On 26 September 2002, Canadian citizen Maher Arar, returning from a family vacation to Tunisia with his wife and two small children, was detained at JFK airport by US immigration officials acting on false information from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Two weeks later, the INS sent Arar to Jordan and then to his birthplace in Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured for nearly a year by interrogators determined to persuade Arar that he had ties to al-Qaeda. In November 2003, shortly after his release, Arar described his ordeal:

I thought first it was a dream. I was crying all the time. I was disoriented. I wished I had something in my hand to kill myself, because I knew I was going to be tortured, and this was my preoccupation….

And the second day, that’s when the beatings started, because, you know, on the first day they did not find anything strange about what I told them. And they started beating me with a cable, electrical threaded cable, and they would beat me for three, four times. They would stop again, and they would ask questions again, and they always kept telling me, “You are a liar,” and things like that. So, the beating continued for the first two weeks. The most — the most intensive — the intensive beating was really the first week, and then after that it was mostly slapping, punching on the face and kicking.

In mid-September 2006 — four years after his ordeal began — a Canadian judge released a three-volume, 1200-page finding that cleared Arar of any connection to terrorism and chastised the United States for refusing to tell Canadian officials that Arar had been rendered to Syria.

Several months after the report’s release, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at last apologized for his government’s role in Arar’s detention.  In October 2007, US Secretary of State observed that the case had not been handled “particularly well,” and she promised that the United States would “try to do better in the future.”

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