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On St George’s Day – Hopes for the Middle East

April 23, 2011

Today is St George’s Day. Most years I hardly notice the feast day of the patron saint of England, Georgia and a host of cities in Europe and the Middle East. I’m on a short break in England, and the usual barmy celebrations are in evidence. At the golf club where I play when I’m home, there’s a St George’s Day competition. Flags everywhere, and a guy dressed as a medieval knight wandering around at the starter’s hut. Most Brits only know the saint as the man who slayed the dragon.

In the Christian tradition, St George was soldier in the army of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. He was much favoured by the Emperor, who quickly promoted him through the ranks. But he had a secret that he eventually revealed. He was a Christian in the army of an emperor who had prescribed the worship of Jesus. Diocletian ruthlessly persecuted Christians wherever he found them. When George declared his faith, the Emperor is said to have offered him a number of inducements to return to the old gods. George refused, and was decapitated.

Why do I mention this everyday story of persecution and martyrdom? Partly because St George was a man of the Middle East, and partly because his feast day in England coincides this year with the Easter weekend.

He was born in Lydda – now known as Lod – a prosperous city in an area known in Roman times as Syria Palaestina. Lod is now a major city in the state of Israel, and the location of the country’s main airport – David Ben Gurion International Airport.

He died in Nicomedia, Diocletian’s administrative capital – once in the province of Bithynia, now in modern Turkey.

That his feast day should coincide this year with the passion of Christ is apt. To a modern resident of the Middle East, martyrdom seems synonymous with Islam. And plenty of martyrs have been created over the past few months. Not far from St George’s birthplace, Palestinians killed by Israelis, and  Syrians killed by other Syrians. Further afield, Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, Bahrainis and Libyans. All martyrs in the eyes of some – criminals and enemies in the eyes of others.

George’s martyrdom is a reminder that in the Middle East, dying for faith did not start with Islam. It is also a reminder that across the region, Christian communities have been steadily marginalised. Coptic churches have been bombed in Egypt. Assyrian Christian communities in Iraq have come under frequent attack. And in Bethlehem, not far from Lod, the Christian population today makes up less than 25%, compared with 75% in 1947.

Much of the depletion of Christian communities has taken place over the past century. Not all of the acts against these communities have been in the name of Islam. Christians have long complained of persecution in secular Turkey, for example.

It was not always thus. Within the great Islamic empires, both Christians and Jews were often treated with far more tolerance than Muslims and Jews were treated by the Christian kingdoms.

In the early days of Islam, many of the Christian traditions – daily prayer and fasting for example – were adopted by Islam. Christians and Muslims often worshipped in the same buildings. Even today, the Middle East has a rich tradition of Christian worship in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Iraq.

About eight years ago my wife and I spent a week on holiday near Antalya, on the South Coast of Turkey. We spent much of that time visiting the magnificent ruins of some of the Greek and Roman cities of Asia Minor – amphitheatres, temples, tombs and cobbled streets. On one excursion to the town of Demre, we happened upon a church said to have been founded in the 3rd century CE in honour of another saint – Nicholas of Myra. He had a reputation for miracle working, and for secret gift giving. This was the St Nicholas who became Santa Claus – the benevolent symbol of Christmas.

There are many other saints from the early Christian era in the Middle East who are still venerated across the world today. It is sad that the region from which they hailed is often seen by outsiders as the domain of a single faith.

The Middle East has given the world three of its great and enduring religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All preach love and respect for humanity. Yet at various times in their histories, the followers of each faith have been persecutors and persecuted.

On St George’s Day, my thoughts are with modern victims of intolerance, and my hope for the Arab Spring is that is that it awakens a renewed respect of difference – political, ethnic and religious. If it simply leads to new barriers that replace the old ones, then surely it will have been in vain.

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