The Significance of the Orthodox New Martyrs

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In the Greek Orthodox context the term 'new martyrs' refers to Orthodox Christians martyred in the period after the fall of Constantinople, that is, from 1453 onwards. In most Greek sources this term is applied exclusively to the martyrs of the Ottoman centuries or Tourkokratia and is not generally a title given after the 1920s. Indeed, it is apparent that new martyrs are popularly held to have not only witnessed to their faith in the Ottoman era but also to have been killed by Ottoman Turks, rather than in some other persecution of the Orthodox Church.

However, an examination of the Byzantine synaxaries reveals that this term was first used for the iconophile martyrs of an earlier era. In this context the title was conferred to underline the extent and brutality of the persecutions unleashed by the iconoclast authorities, Church and state. Even in the period of the controversy over icons a link was made between widespread persecution of the iconophiles and their tenacious resistance to imperial edicts, with the pagan persecutions of the first Christian centuries.

This linking not only legitimized and honoured resistance but also implied that iconoclast and pagan emperors posed an equivalent threat to the very survival of the Christian oikoumene. In these terms, it can be argued that the Orthodox Church both already possessed the language to refer to Christian witness within the expanding Ottoman Empire and was prepared to immediately redeploy a proven and potent concept. By redefining the term, Orthodox writers were proclaiming that although Orthodox Church institutions accepted the Pax Ottomana, individual Christians who witnessed to their faith to the point of death were heroic. New martyrs were depicted as the contemporary equals of the revered great-martyrs of the persecution under Diocletian and other pagan emperors. Furthermore, it was implied that the Ottoman authorities shared the opprobrium of the despised iconoclasts and hated pagans, and that Ottoman hegemony would prove to be equally transient. It can be argued, therefore, that the use of this term was quite as subversive as irredentist folk songs, popular sayings or the prophetic tracts that circulated in Greek throughout the Ottoman period. Localized veneration of revolutionary leaders like Dionysios Skylosophos of Larissa (d. 1600) clearly establishes this connection.

In the surviving accounts the new martyrs were only rarely represented as being victims of a simple miscarriage of Ottoman justice. Rather they emerged as extraordinary individuals who developed the courage and conviction to witness to their faith during ongoing, widespread and ordinary levels of harassment or persecution. The passion of John the Tailor (d. 1526) illustrates this point.

The Lives of the new martyrs and traditions relating to their passion present a grim account of Ottoman rule and of the situation of the Orthodox Christian population. However, it must be noted that they are neither unremittingly anti-Muslim nor consistently disparaging of the Ottoman order. Ultimately, they are concerned with moments of crisis and a complete breakdown in inter-communal relations. As the texts address fellow Orthodox Christians they are neither overtly polemical nor commentaries on the status of the non-Muslim groups. For a more balanced view of inter-faith relations we must turn to accounts of saints such as Ignatios Agallianos of Methymne (d. 1566), Eugenios Yiannoulis (d. 1682), John the Russian of Prokopion (d. 1730) or other Christians whose contribution to the wider community was normally respected or even encouraged.

Although the new martyrs were drawn from every walk of life they were extraordinary in so far as they were uncompromising in matters of faith. In this sense they were clearly a force of renewal within Christian communities that had been ground down by centuries of compromise, complacency and apostasy. Indeed, as new converts to Christianity are included amongst the new martyrs this group can be held to represent symbolically a reversal for the rising tide of Islam. This is the case even in the pre-Ottoman period as we discover that the Georgians venerated Neophytos-Omar the Arab (d. 590), a martyred convert from Islam. The cults of former Muslims, including George of the Copts (d. 959), Hoja Amir (d. 1614), Ahmet Kalfa (d. 1682), John-Hasan (d. 1814), Constantine the Hagarene (d. 1819) and Boris the Pomak (d. 1913), surely served to reassure the Christians that conversion was a two-way process.

Regardless of the historical accuracy of local traditions, or individual accounts, or the validity of the bleak vision of the dhimmi presented, it is significant that the cult of the new martyrs was promoted primarily by the Orthodox laity. Even monastic or ecclesiastical writers, collectors of information and disseminators of the tracts viewed the new martyrs as a sign of renewal in the life of the Church. Interestingly, within the Ottoman Empire new martyrs were adopted as the patrons of guilds and communities, not least George of Chiopolis (d. 1807) by Kydonia/Ayvalik and Demetrios (d. 1657) of Philadelphia/Alasehir in Asia Minor. This in itself indicates that the Ottomans were normally tolerant, even of new martyr patrons.

The very term 'new martyr' underlined both their importance to the Orthodox and that the Church was thought to be in danger of extinction. The subversive nature of this message was reflected by the reluctance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate openly to acknowledge or canonize these figures, in some cases even up to the present day. In almost every case popular veneration of new martyrs always preceded official church recognition. Lay veneration for certain new martyrs, for instance Panteleimon Dousa (d. 1848), is still officially discouraged. Likewise, it made sense that the term was only applied to martyrs of the Ottoman centuries and became redundant after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the exchange of populations between Greece, Turkey and neighbours (in the 1920s).

Even within the Greek Orthodox context an earlier move in this direction can be detected. This is clearly indicated in the accounts of Eustathios of Harran (d. 741), the

Forty-two Martyrs of Amorion, executed in Baghdad (c. 845), or Theodore Gavras of Atran (d. 1028), martyred by the Seljuks in Erzerum. It is sensible to assume that the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem alongside the Churches of Armenia, Georgia and the East first developed the rhetoric of the new martyr model in an earlier context; whenever they first experienced Muslim incursions or rule and associated persecutions. Examples include the traditions associated with Bashnufa of Egypt (d. 1092), the Tbilisi martyrs (thirteenth century) and Ruwais of Egypt (d. 1404). Popular veneration of Emperor Constantine XII Palaeologus and Christians killed in the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 was probably spontaneous and due to long-standing precedents.

Nevertheless, even for the Armenian, Syrian and Assyrian Christians 'new martyrs' remains a term largely applied to the victims of Ottoman Turkish persecution in the run-up to and during the First World War. It can be postulated that the term denotes resistance and is intrinsically linked with historical moments when the continued existence of the Church or the Christian community was threatened. It is reserved for those whose witness parallels that of the Christian heroes of the first era of martyrs, particularly the persecutions of Diocletian.

The term ethno-martyrs can be viewed as a variation on the same theme. However, the differentiation might be taken to imply that their witness is mainly of local significance. Although some, like Ecumenical Patriarchs Cyril VI and Gregory V (d. 1821), are revered by Orthodox Christians of several traditions, the very title suggests that they were martyrs for the national cause as much as for the wider Christian commonwealth. This subgroup represent a shift in focus to local churches that, from the 1820s to the 1920s, increasingly represented national aspirations. The term was revived to explain and legitimize the involvement of Orthodox Christians in the cause of the Resistance during the Second World War. Essentially this is a group linked to the politics of national liberation and self-determination. Thomas Paschides (d. 1890), Ilia Chavcha-vadze (d. 1907), Maxim Sandovich (d. 1914), Chrysostom Kalaphatis of Smyrna (d. 1922), Plato Jovanovic of Banja Luka (d. 1941) and Hariton Lukic of Kosovo (d. 1999) are amongst Christian figures who were martyred for their national affiliation as much as for their religious convictions. Gorazd Pavlik (d. 1942) was executed for his involvement with the resistance movement in Czechoslovakia and Maria Skobtsova (d. 1945) for her stand against Nazi anti-Semitism.

Outside the Ottoman context the new martyrs are mainly a product of the turbulent twentieth century. The century opened ominously for the Orthodox Church with the martyrdom of Mitrophan Chi and many others in China during the Boxer Uprising (1900). Most notably the recognized new martyrs of the Soviet Union clearly outnumber their predecessors of the Ottoman era. They include Orthodox Christians who were killed during the 1917 Revolution, Stalinist and other purges. Vladimir Bogoiavlenskij (d. 1917), Veniamin Kazanskij (d. 1922), Pavel Florensky (d. 1937), Seraphim Chicha-gov (d. 1937), Basil Preobrazhenskij (d. 1945) and other outstanding figures in this group are commonly overshadowed by Elisabeth Feodorovna (d. 1918), Tsar Nicolas II and the Russian imperial family. The 800,000 Serbian and Montenegrin new martyrs largely represent the Orthodox Christian response to ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia during the Second World War. These latter two groups represent the Orthodox Church in conflict with both extremes of the political spectrum: Communist and Fascist regimes. Again, the use of the term emphasizes the heroism of individual Orthodox Christians alongside the injustices of an era and the gravity of the threat to the continued existence of Orthodox Christian communities and their way of life.

It must be noted that in the conflicts of the twentieth century the new martyrs are necessarily political figures and therefore by definition controversial. Even the new martyrs who witnessed to their faith within the collapsing Ottoman Empire in the early decades of the twentieth century represent victims of modern political conflicts. Genocide, ethnic cleansing and ideological purges were not entirely inventions of the twentieth century but they were refined as political tools from the eve of the First World War onwards. In this sense, the phenomenon of the new martyrs has arguably transcended the Eastern Christian context in the modern period. It is documented that in the prisons and concentration camps of assorted totalitarian regimes, now canonized Orthodox Christian new martyrs rubbed shoulders with Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and other martyrs. All are indisputably martyrs to injustice, racism and sectarianism. Increasingly, the term is now used for witnesses to a variety of faiths of the last hundred years or the modern period generally.

Faithful to their pedigree, the Orthodox new martyrs include individuals from most walks of life alongside large groups that are often commemorated anonymously. Like the martyrs of Christian antiquity, they are a mix of clergy and laity, men, women and children, loyal Christians, 'reverting' apostates and new converts. Necessarily extraordinary individuals, in that they witnessed to their faith to the point of death, the new martyrs theologically represent the transfiguration of ordinary people, concerns and even entire communities. The new martyrs indicate the tenacity of the Orthodox Christian vision in the face of inter-faith rivalry or inter-communal conflict and the onslaught of a succession of nationalist or secular ideologies. The promotion of the cult of the new martyrs within Orthodox Churches, whether clandestinely or publicly, has proved to be a profound gesture of resistance, hope for, and confidence in the future. The new martyrs have illustrated most aspects of Orthodox spirituality across many centuries and in changing circumstances. Above all, they have symbolized the dignity of the Church in adverse circumstances and the inevitability of Christian renewal.

The above assertion flies in the face of comments of generations of outside observers who perceived the Orthodox Churches as being most moribund in the very years that produced the greatest numbers of new martyrs. In contrast to the witness of contemporary ascetic or contemplative figures the witness of the new martyrs clearly had an immediate and inspirational impact. Undoubtedly, the continued existence of saintly elders, male and female, remained an issue of prestige to devout Orthodox Christians. However, the passion of new martyrs surely served as an outward declaration of the faithfulness of the entire community. Clearly, this has been a particularly potent message in times when the Church has been under attack or in retreat. It stands to reason, therefore, that the new martyrs are not simply a historical phenomenon. We must assume that the example of many new martyrs will continue to inspire Christians and others, and that unfolding political and related upheavals will add to their number, at least in the foreseeable future.

The political dimension to the cult of the new martyrs has generally been overlooked. The importance within the group of dynamic women, including Philothei of Athens (d. 1589), Kassandra Ypsilanti of Trebizond (d. 1677), Elisabeth Feodorovna (d. 1918) and Maria Skobtsova (d. 1945) deserves closer study. The centrality to movements of 'national reawakening' of new martyrs like Theodore Sladich (d. 1788) or Kosmas Aitolos (d. 1779) needs to be reassessed in a wider, pan-Orthodox context. Furthermore, the existence of new martyrs who challenged the marriage of Church and state itself, including Kosmas Phlamiatos (d. 1852) in Greece, Ilia Chavchavadze (d. 1907) in Georgia and dissidents like Catherine Rouka (d. 1927), merits analysis. Regarding dissent, the mainstream Orthodox Churches need to consider whether Old Believer and Old Calendar new martyrs are indeed peripheral to the wider group. It is important to disentangle the politics of inter-communal conflict in accounts of martyrdoms, not least because this remains an issue in many countries. The case of St Sidhum Bishai (d. 1844) in Egypt remains relevant as the Copts have continued to experience sporadic pogroms. Above all, it is necessary to define the Christian vision that unites most Orthodox new martyrs and discover how this enabled people such as Anthimos the Georgian (d. 1716) to transcend their culture and origins to achieve pan-Orthodox significance. The very cult of the new martyrs attests to the persistence of unique features of Eastern Christian civilization. Veneration ofJohn of Trebizond (d. 1492), George of Sofia (d. 1515), Zlata/Chryse of Moglena (d. 1795) or George of Ioannina (d. 1838) and other new martyrs has both withstood the test of time and remained trans-national, thus reaffirming an underlying unity amongst Eastern Christians.

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