by Srdja Trifkovic
Persecution and martyrdom of Christians under 20th century totalitarianism–mainly of Russian Orthodox Christians under Bolshevism–is by far the greatest crime in all of recorded history. It is several times greater than the Holocaust in terms of innocent lives brutally destroyed. It has killed more Christians in a few decades than all other causes put together in all ages, with Islam a distant second as the cause of their death and suffering. And yet it still remains a largely unknown, often minimized, or scandalously glossed over crime.
According to the respected and reliable OUP World Christian Encyclopedia (2001), there have been many more Christian martyrs in the 20th century–over 45 million–than in all of the preceding 19 centuries of Christianity. Of that number, some 32 million were killed by “atheists” and over 9 million by Muslims. The “atheists” denote, overwhelmingly, Soviets and their Communist cohorts and satellites, but also include Nazis and their allies. The Spanish Republic was an especially efficient Christian-killing machine. In terms of the size of the targeted population and the timespan of only two and a half years, the Compañeros did almost as well as the Tovarishchi.
It may be argued that among the Bolsheviks’ victims many were slaughtered not because they were Christians-as-such, but because they were “objectively” real or potential enemies of the state, i.e., Tsarist army officers and aristocrats, peasant farmers (“kulaks”), artists, academics, or middle class professionals. But while it would be admittedly erroneous to count every Christian, however nominal, who died under Communist persecution as a “New Martyr,” there is no doubt:
- that Christians were targeted with particular ferocity for the very reason of their faith;
- that the Russian Orthodox Church and other Christian confessions–notably Eastern Rite Catholics–were subjected to systematic destruction on a titanic scale; and
- that the majority of victims targeted for supposedly “secular” reasons of class, profession, or political beliefs, were also Christian believers whose faith was inseparable from other traits of their personality.
We’ll never know how many of those countless victims were “in a situation of witness for the Faith” at the moment of death, which is the conventional definition of martyrdom. Of the mental state of the killers, however, and specifically of their intention to eradicate Christianity by whatever means, there is no doubt at all. In 20 years (1918-1938) the number of churches that remained open in Russia was reduced from 54,000 to under 500–to less than one percent, that is, of the pre-Bolshevik total. In all some 600 bishops, 40,000 priests, 120,000 monks and nuns, and millions of laypeople were martyred for the Orthodox Faith in Russia in the five decades after 1918. The survivors were also confessors: they survived, but theirs was a living martyrdom.
The term “martyr,” in its broader Greek meaning of “witness,” is indeed applicable to most if not all of the victims. Therefore we shall not use the term “New Martyrs” in its narrower meaning of a witness who shed his blood, and who has official Church approval in the form of canonization. The broader definition provides the right way to treat the slain innocents. As Pope John Paul II said at the Commemoration of 20th Century Witnesses of the Faith at the Coliseum in May 2000,
The names of many are unknown; the names of some have been denigrated by their persecutors, who tried to add disgrace to martyrdom; the names of others have been concealed by their executioners. But Christians preserve the memory of a great number of them.
The blood of Christ’s martyred witnesses, the Pope went on, is
“the precious heritage that these courageous witnesses have passed down to us is a patrimony shared by all the Churches and ecclesial communities.”
As an example he singled out Metropolitan Benjamin of Saint Petersburg, martyred in 1922, whose final word at his farcical trial was,
“no matter what you decide, life or death, I will lift up my eyes reverently to God, cross myself and affirm: Glory to Thee, my Lord, glory to Thee for everything.”
Persecution and martyrdom are inseparable from Orthodox 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.
When we talk of “New Martyrs” today, we think mainly of the victims of Bolshevism. Before 1981, however, the “New Martyrs” of Orthodoxy denoted those who suffered for the faith under the Muslim, and most notably Turkish yoke. Our knowledge of most of them is scant, but they offer a splendid example of the diversity and generosity of the Holy Spirit acting in the lives of believers in those long centuries of oppression and persecution.
St. Tsar Lazar of Serbia, who fell fighting Turks at Kosovo in 1389, is the precursor of them all. 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. But in his calm self-sacrifice for the Faith, his choice of freedom that transcends the world and opens the gates of Eternity, he is indeed a 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. All the treasures of the Imperial Palace were carried off. Books and icons were burnt once the jeweled covers and frames had been wrenched off. In the monastery of the Holy Savior, the invaders first destroyed the icon of the Mother of God, the Hodigitria, the holiest icon in all Byzantium. When the Turks burst into the Hagia Sophia, the worshippers were trapped. The old and infirm were killed on the spot; the rest were tied together. Many of the richer-clad nobles were almost torn to death as their captors quarreled over them. The priests went on chanting at the altar till they, too, were taken or slain The inhabitants were carried off along with their possessions. Frail stragglers were slaughtered, as well as infants who were held to be of no value. The city, as Sir Steven Runciman wrote,
“was now half in ruins, emptied and deserted and blackened as though by fire, and strangely silent. Wherever the soldiers had been there was desolation. Churches had been desecrated and stripped; houses were no longer habitable and shops and stores battered and bare.”
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. The city’s name was changed to Istanbul, just as many years later St. Petersburg would become “Leningrad.” 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!”
His song is also the song of all true Christians of all times.
In 1821 Patriarch Gregorios was hanged in Constantinople. In 1822 the island of Chios–to use contemporary parlance–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 somewhat 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 Gladstone’s 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, and only needed a friendly, supportive nudge to become quite, or almost, like other civilized people. Disraeli prompted unprecedented depiction of Turkey as tolerant and humane, even in the face of the Bulgarian atrocities, but Britain’s Christian conscience, prodded by Gladstone’s passion, brought down his government in 1880. There are no such checks, alas, to the morbid Islamophilia of our ruling elites today.
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. In 1922 alone, 28 Russian Orthodox bishops and over 1,200 priests were executed, and many more others were imprisoned or exiled. True to their modernist creed, they adopted the mechanisms and resources of a modern industrial state, including intricate camp networks and police apparata. Muslim terror was primitive and traditional by comparison. As Fr. Marco Gnavi, secretary of the Jubilee New Martyrs Commission, pointed out in 2000,
these new martyrs are men and women who did not suffer at the hands of individuals, but under whole inhuman systems . . . The term ‘New Martyrs’ indicates a new dimension of martyrdom: Christians have suffered for the faith–not so much individually, instead whole generations underwent persecution. Entire Churches, communities, and families suffered for their loyalty to Christ, the Gospel, and the Church, in situations where, before killing the body, the persecutors sought to kill the soul. In the 20th century, there were those who tried to wipe out the capacity to resist evil, and the desire for reconciliation and peace.
Attempts at “killing the soul” started only months after the Revolution of 1917. Irina Skariatina remembered the desecration of her church while Metropolitan Benjamin was serving an all-night vigil in Petrograd in 1918 when the church was surrounded by hundreds of soldiers who subsequently broke in, talking, laughing, swearing, smoking, spitting loudly:
They came up the aisle to the altar where the Metropolitan and twelve assisting bishops and archimandrites were officiating and, pushing them aside, prodded the golden coverings of the altar with their bayonets (“to see if any firearms were concealed,” they explained), then threw cigarette ashes into the Chalice and finally spat into it, throwing it on the ground as they left the altar on their way out. The congregation, paralyzed with horror, did not move at first. Then suddenly it broke loose, a multitude of people maddened by the outrage, all acting under the same impulse of boundless indignation. In a second the soldiers were stopped, surrounded, and would probably have been torn to pieces alive (despite the fact that they were armed and the congregation was not), had not the Metropolitan come forward and called out in a loud voice the words of Christ:
“Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” adding, “Let them go in peace and do not leave your places for we shall proceed with the service.”
He was obeyed, of course …
Such fortitude did not save him from the firing squad in 1922. Patriarch Tikhon, amidst the rising ocean of blood, called on his flock to share the cup of martyrdom:
“If it becomes necessary to suffer for the sake of Christ, we call upon you, beloved sons and daughters of the Church, we call upon you to suffer to-gether with us. If a redeeming sacrifice is required, the death of the innocent sheep of Christ’s flock, I bless the faithful servants of the Lord Jesus Christ to pain and death for His sake.”
By that time the mind-boggling scale of the Soviet killing machine made obvious a fundamental difference between anti-Christian pogroms carried out by Muslims in the previous 13 centuries and those perpetrated by 20th century totalitarians. Bolsheviks relied on centralized decision-making structures, hierarchies, plans, orders, reports, lists of victims, statistics, trains and timetables. Muslim orders, by contrast, were mostly oral and their terror was often applied in an arbitrary manner and with a random selection of targets and methods of killing.
Bolshevik terror was for the most part depersonalized and bureaucratic, it was cold, abstract, objective–just like Lenin’s hatred of humankind. The Muslims, on the other hand, specialized in gruesome methods of execution, such as impalement and decapitation, but such methods were too slow for the massive scale of Lenin’s endeavor. Bolshevik terror, with its somberness, discipline, bureaucratic pedantry etc. was “puritanical,” while the Muslims indulged literally in orgies of violence. Finally, Bolshevik terror was “modern” in its ideology of dialectical materialism, while the Muslims invoked centuries-old concepts of jihad, sharia and dhimmitude to justify their actions and motivate the ranks.
Bolshevism is dead, but jihad is alive and well. Anronio 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.”
This is regrettable but inevitable. The present technological, military, and financial might of the Western world is a mere façade that conceals an underlying moral and spiritual weakness that may yet undermine the entire edifice. The symptoms of that malaise start with the loss of faith, manifest in the fact that, in today’s Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany, more people pray in mosques on Fridays than in churches on Sundays. The ruling elites’ visceral antipathy to Christianity makes them averse to acknowledging any “New Martyrs” anywhere.
But they are with us, and will be always. 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. From St. Prince Lazar to today’s New Martyrs of Kosovo, such as monks Fr. Chariton and Fr. Stefan who were brutally murdered by the Albanians in 1999, the suffering is always a choice for life, not death, and
“a pressing call to have the courage of our Christian convictions, not to be afraid to exercise Christian virtues; it is a call to unity in faith in Christ.”
The New Martyrs’ example and their legacy is precious, because in this, 21st century, it will be the turn of Western Christians to experience martyrdom. In Western Europe they will be persecuted by the unholy alliance between the postmodern, Christophobic velvet totalitarianism of the therapeutic hyper-state, and a resurgent Islam which already accounts for a quarter of all newborns in France. In the United States they will be persecuted for refusing to accept the destruction of the moral foundation of the society, currently epitomized by abortion, by “gay marriage,” and by the ever-expanding speech and thought codes. Instead of being thrown to the lions or sent to Siberia, the resisters will be subjected–by some monstrous mechanism devised by an ever more activist judiciary–to the mandatory “sexual diversity orientation sessions,” or feminist-led pro-abortionist “right-to-choose education workshops,” or “immigrant rights sensitivity training,” after which the continuing refusal to recant will lead to compulsory “therapy” and forced medication. This scenario is not farfetched on either side of the Atlantic. Western Christians should be prepared for martyrdom.
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 over 70 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 Bishops declared, “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 statutes and 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 apostatise 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, to continue to openly witness the faith and be prepared to follow the path of confessors and martyrs for Christ. Amen; but is a political theory of Christian resistance possible?
Perhaps the key is to draw the distinction between “liberal democracy” that promises freedom “from” things, and Christian liberty that upholds freedom “for” things.
This model should be broad enough to provide the consensual platform for different Christian traditions. To regain the war-ravaged remnants of “Christendom,” its embattled majority of manipulated citizens needs help to become conscious of the power that it still possesses, but to that end it should be admitted by every Christian that others–people outside his particular tradition–may share Christian virtues and lead good lives. They need to hang together, in these trying times, or else they will most assuredly hang separately. At all times they need to be prepared to bear witness to the Truth of Christ to the death, as Christ Himself, the
“Faithful Witness” (Rev., 1, 5),
“to this end was born, and for this cause came into the world, to bear witness unto the truth” (John 28: 37),
and to give up His life through suffering on the Cross for the redemption of many. 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 14: 8).
This article is drawn from Dr. Trifkovic’s address to the Norbertine Fathers of St. Michael’s Abbey, Silverado, California, May 13, 2006.
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