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Christian Martyrdom

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By:Srdja Trifkovic | April 25, 2017

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I like and respect Pat Buchanan, whose heart is always in the right place. I feel compelled to offer an addendum to his recent article on the suffering of Middle East Christians, not because I disagree with anything he says but because the whole story deserves closer scrutiny.

Persecution and martyrdom are inseparable from Eastern Christian experience—first under the Muslim conquerors, starting in the middle ages and continuing in many parts of the world to this day, and then, in the twentieth century, under Communism. Persecution and martyrdom connect the eastern Church of our time with the early Church. “My strength is made perfect in weakness,” said Christ to St. Paul (2 Cor 12:9); and, as Bishop Kallistos Ware points out, we see His words fulfilled again and again in Orthodox history since the fall of Byzantium.

St. Tsar Lazar of Serbia, who fell fighting Turks at Kosovo in 1389, is the precursor. On St. Vitus' day, June 15 (old style), facing the mighty Ottoman horde, he declared, “Let us die with Christ so that we can live for ever,” for the earthly kingdom is transient, while the Kingdom of Heaven is eternal. In his martyrdom St. Lazar combined the suffering for Christ of the Holy New-Martyr Nicholas II Romanov, and the death in battle of the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI Paleologos, in 1453. In his calm self-sacrifice for the Faith, his choice of freedom that transcends the world and opens the gates of Eternity, Lazar is an universal Christian hero.

Once the last Byzantine Emperor and his badly outnumbered soldiers were slain on the walls of Constantinople 64 years later, bands of Turks went on a rampage. Pillaging and killing went on for three days. Thousands of civilians were slain, the rest were enslaved; soldiers literally fought over boys and young women. The blood ran in streams down the steep streets from the heights of Petra toward the Golden Horn.

Most of the churches of Constantinople were converted to mosques, just as in Russia five centuries later they would become warehouses, latrines, or abortion clinics. In the ensuing centuries, being a Greek, Bulgar, or Serb in the Ottoman Empire meant living in daily fear of murder, rape, torture, robbery, kidnap of one's children, slavery, and every other form of barbarity imaginable. St. Zlata Meglenska, a pious virgin-martyr who was ordered to convert to Islam on the pain of death, was implored by her family to go through the motions: “O sweetest daughter, have pity on yourself and on us your parents and your sisters . . . Deny Christ just for the sake of appearances.” “You who incite me to deny Christ, the true God, are no longer my parents and sisters,” she replied, “but in your place I have my Lord Jesus Christ as a father, my Lady the Theotokos as a mother, and the saints as my brothers and sisters.” She suffered a particularly horrible form of martyrdom. The chronicler of her life tells us that her agony was so terrible “that even the most stout-hearted of men would be humbled.”

As Turkey declined after the second siege of Vienna, its provincial governors and warlords—often, though not always, local converts to Islam with a suppressed guilty grudge against their former co-religionists—grew stronger, and increasingly asserted rebellious independence. Notably in the Balkans, it was demonstrated in far harsher treatment of their Christian subjects than was either mandated or normally practiced from the Bosphorus. Two Serbian new martyrs, St. Abbot Paisius and St. Deacon Avakum, were impaled at the gates of Belgrade in 1814. When his mother begged Avakum with tears to save his life by accepting Islam, this wonderful solder of Christ replied to her, thanking her for her motherhood but not for her advice. Looking to the end of his own martyrdom in the immortal Kingdom of Christ, Avakum went to his horrible end singing, “There’s no more beautiful faith than Christianity, so let's rejoice at death.”

In 1821 Patriarch Gregorios was hanged in Constantinople. In 1822 the island of Chios was subjected to genocide and ethnic cleansing. The following year, the number of victims of the slaughter at Missolongi is known precisely: 8,750. The butchery of 14,700 Bulgarians in 1876 was almost routine by Turkish standards. At the town of Batal, 5,000 out of 7,000 inhabitants were murdered, a fact that was unsuccessfully suppressed by Disraeli's pro-Turkish government. In many cases, the massacres of Christians resulted from local Muslim revolts against any decree granting their Christian subjects greater rights. At the same time, the great Western powers, and Great Britain in particular, actually supported the continuing Turkish subjugation of Christian Europeans on the grounds that the Mohammedan empire was a stabilizing force and a counterweight against Austria and Russia. Their scandalous alliance with Turkey against Russia in the Crimean War reflected a pernicious frame of mind that has manifested itself more recently in the overt or de facto support of the United States for the Muslim side in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Chechnya, Cyprus, East Timor, and Kashmir.

From the dozens of anti-Christian pogroms in the nineteenth century, the Bulgarian Atrocities are remembered more vividly than others because they provoked a cry of indignation from Gladstone, who asserted of the Ottomans, “No government ever has so sinned, none has proved itself so incorrigible in sin, or which is the same, so impotent in reformation.” But his opponents, the advocates of Turkophile policy at Westminster, went beyond Realpolitik in arguing for the lifeline to the Sick Man of the Bosphorus: they devised the theory that the Ottomans were in reality agreeable and tolerant. The carnage peaked as the Ottoman Empire became Turkey. The burning of Smyrna and the massacre and scattering of its 300,000 Christian inhabitants is one of the great crimes of all times. The exodus of up to two million Christians in 1922 marked the end of the Greek civilization in Asia Minor, which had also given the world the immortal cities of Philadelphia and Ephesus.

By the time the Levantine Christianity was in its death throes, the biggest Christian-killing machine in history—set up by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and his cohorts—had been in operation for over four years. Bolshevism is now dead; but jihad is alive and well. Antonio Socci, the author of The New Persecuted: Inquiries into Anti-Christian Intolerance in the New Century of Martyrs, provides evidence that some 160,000 Christians have been killed every year since 1990, the vast majority by Muslims. Chronicling attacks, pogroms and wars in East Timor, Indonesia, Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan, India, and the Balkans, Socci identifies Islamic aggression as the main danger. And yet, says he, “This global persecution of Christianity is still in progress but in most cases is ignored by the mass media and Christians in the west.”

In his apostolic letter, Tertium Millennium Adveniente in preparation for the Great Jubilee of 2000, the late Pope John Paul II said, “In our own (20th) century the martyrs have returned, many of them nameless, ‘unknown soldiers,’ as it were, of God’s great cause.” Their witness should not be lost, the Pope added, and indeed it is not lost. For the survivors it spells out a message of love and the Gospel. The New Martyrs’ example and their legacy is precious, because in this century it will be the turn of Western Christians to experience martyrdom. In Western Europe they are already persecuted by the unholy alliance between the postmodern, Christophobic PC totalitarianism of the therapeutic hyper-state, and a resurgent Islam which is as relentless demographically as it is implacable ideologically. In the United States they will be persecuted for refusing to accept the destruction of the moral foundation of the society.

The witness of the New Martyrs makes it necessary to define what is permissible and what is impermissible in the relationship between the Church and state, especially a state that is pursuing policies that are evil. For starters, it is necessary to reject any absolutization of government authority. Earthly and temporal powers of the state should be recognized as imperative only to the degree that they are used to support good and limit evil. This problem was recognized 84 years ago by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, in the Encyclical Epistle of the Council of Bishops Abroad of 1933: “The attempt to delineate spheres of influence between the Church and the State—the soul of man belongs to the former, his body to the latter—will in principle never achieve its objective, because it is only possible to divide man into two separate parts in an abstract sense; in reality, they comprise a single, indivisible whole, and only death dissolves the tie that binds them together.”

The Jubilee Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church of 2000 also addressed this problem in its Basic Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church: “In everything that concerns the exclusively earthly order of things, the Orthodox Christian is obliged to obey the law, regardless of how far it is imperfect and unfortunate.” However, when compliance with legal requirements threatens his eternal salvation and involves an apostasy or commitment of another doubtless sin before God and his neighbor,

The Christian is called to perform the feat of confession for the sake of God’s truth and the salvation of his soul for eternal life. He must speak out lawfully against an indisputable violation committed by society or state against the commandments of God. If this lawful action is impossible or ineffective, he must take up the position of civil disobedience. The Church is loyal to the state, but God’s commandment to fulfill the task of salvation in any situation and under any circumstances is above this loyalty . . . If the authority forces Orthodox believers to apostatize from Christ and His Church and to commit sinful and spiritually harmful actions, the Church should refuse to obey the state . . . [It] must resist evil, immorality and harmful social phenomena and always firmly confess the Truth, and when persecutions commence, it must continue to openly witness the faith and be prepared to follow the path of confessors and martyrs for Christ.

The key is to draw the distinction between “democracy” that promises freedom from things, and Christian liberty that upholds freedom for things. Christians need to hang together, in these dark times, or else they will most assuredly hang separately. To bear Christian witness is to give glory to God in living and in dying, just as Metropolitan Benjamin and millions of other New Martyrs have done: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord” (Romans XIV, 8).

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