Saint of the Day: St. Arethas and the Martyrs of Najran

(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press .Today's saint, Arethras, comes from Volume 4 of the series.) 

Saint Arethas and the Martyrs of Najran

"The modern-day conflicts of the Middle East appear to be an extension of the troubled times of St. Arethas, forever associated with the martyrs of the city with the typical Middle Eastern name of Najran. At a time when the empire under Justin in the sixth century was relatively calm, the extreme eastern sector now known as Yemen was near chaos with Christian minorities caught in an unrest not of their own doing, culminating in a reign of terror, of persecution and injustice. The terrorism of today is matched by the treachery with which Arethas and this like had to contend well over a thousand years ago.

The Askumite Ethiopians, long since Christianized, had a somewhat tenuous hold over this troubled spot but the little peace that was at hand shattered over the rise of a man named Dunaan, converted from who knows what to a professed Judaism. Exhorting a rabble, undisciplined to take over the entire area, he led a motley array of brutes against the city of Zafar, which was laid waste after the slaughter of its tiny garrison and all its clergymen. Flushed with this success, he then turned to Najran, which at that time was predominantly Christian. Its leading figure was the devout Arethas, whose devotion to Christ was matched by his courage and resolve.

Unable to penetrate the defenses of a city so nobly inspired by the gallant Arethas, the treacherous Dunaan, the wily enemy of Christ, pretended to seek a truce and led a contingent under the banner of peace into the very presence of Arethas, who was disarmed by the convincing manner of the rabble leader, to the point where he agreed to allow his enemies to enter the city as friends and live in peace if they chose to remain. The forces of Dunaan were thus admitted peacefully but at a given signal they proceeded to loot and plunder, all the while killing the wholly unsuspecting Christians.

Arethas and his family became victims of this perfidy and were dragged before the conqueror, who made a gesture to spare them providing they would join forces with him. Arethas refused not only because of his faith in Christ but because he had no faith whatsoever in the word of so vile a captor. Forced to witness the execution of his own daughters, Arethas, together with his wife, was thereafter beheaded and it is estimated that in the carnage of that infamous day in 523 as many as four thousand Christians were put to death.

The horrible fate of Arethas and his fellow Christians of Najran sent shock waves throughout the civilized world, but it was some time before the exiled King Elesbaan was ordered by the emperor to return to the area he had once ruled and recapture the city of Najran. Preparations on both sides were extensive, but when the battle was joined the exiled king prevailed and the long lost city regained. The Askunite King Elesbaan did not wreak the terrible vengeance due the enemies of Christianity, but in the spirit of Arethas, was merciful in conquest. The historian Alban Butler recorded that the king, 'having by divine blessing defeated the tyrant, made use of his victory with great clemency and moderation.

It is interesting to note that Mohammed makes mention of the Najran slaughter in the Koran, not only deploring the incident but consigning the aggressors to hell as well. With Christianity once more restored, a bishop was assigned to Najran by the patriarch of Alexandria, who held services in memory of the martyrs. In due course Arethas was formally made a saint, together with those who died with him. The spirit of Christianity seemed to have hovered over the city even when in captive hands, and the mood of the departed Arethas was captured by the king, who ruled for a time but eventually convinced those about him that his destiny lay elsewhere.

As a footnote to the story of Arethas and his martyrs, it needs to be said that Elesbaan took leave of his office at the helm of Yemen and after donating his jewel-encrusted crown to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, he entered a monastery for the remainder of his days. With a quiet dignity he applied himself solely to the work of the Lord as a humble monk. After long service to God and man, he was finally put to rest and thereafter joined Arethas in the company of saints."

(From Orthodox Saints, Vol. 4by Fr. George Poulos. Icon from Wikipedia.) 

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