(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 we commemorate St. Manuel and his companions, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Saints Manuel, Savel and Ismael
In the absence of a clear-cut separation of church and state as it is defined in America, the politico-religious regimes of the early Byzantine Empire reached their lowest point with the ascension to the throne of Julian the Apostate, the debased ruler who disavowed Christ. He carried his perfidy to the extreme of persecuting three emissaries of another country. They had come to him on an errand of peace only to be placed as cruel sacrifices on the altar of a deranged emperor whose only distinction was whether or not the condemned was a Christian, regardless of national origin or purpose.
The three who came in peace were brothers named Manuel, Savel and Ismael, all natives and dignitaries of a country once known as Persia, but now known as Iran. In the age of Julian the religion of Islam was three centuries down the road, and the proportion of Christians to non-Christians was greater than it is now in the ancient land of Persia where hostility with the Western world was not based on religion, but on political conquest. There are those who believe that the atrocity committed on three innocents in violation of international honor, if not law, did much to intensify a smoldering hatred between the Near East and the Byzantine Empire. It seems to have weakened the position of Christianity in an always-volatile land, as evidenced by the presence of very few Christians in the Near East today.
The motives of Julian the Apostate have always been suspect, causing some to speculate that his twisted mind may have devised a plot to overrun Persia, commencing with a surreptitious arrangement for a diplomatic confrontation as a prelude to an armed assault. In any case, the ruler Valanos (who reigned over a disjointed tribal country that knew no single religion but was composed of sun worshipers and their like), casting about for three of his most able diplomats when the false peace offering had been made, came up with the three brothers whose statesmanship had been fully established and whose Christian faith was no deterrent to him.
The small Christian population of Persia had produced some of the country’s finest minds, one of which was an eminent scholar named Evnoikos, a philosopher and Christian who numbered among his students the brothers Manuel, Savel and Ismael. These brothers in turn gained an eminence as philosophers, scientists, linguists and, above all, devout Christians, but it was for their overall intelligence that they were selected to go to Constantinople following the devious extension of the poisoned olive branch. Laden with gifts for the emperor, they went to the proud capital of Constantinople with sincere hope and Christian charity in their hearts.
In the hearts of those who greeted the brothers was a malevolence calculated to determine the Persian preparedness for war, which could be surreptitiously gleaned in a seemingly innocuous discussion of affairs of state with the unsuspecting visitors. To make more certain that the diplomats were completely disarmed and lulled into a false sense of friendship, a festive banquet was arranged coinciding with a celebration honoring the Roman gods. By error of omission or lack of scrutiny, the treacherous hosts were quite unaware that their guests were Christians.
When the brothers discovered the purpose of the feast, they politely declined on religious grounds. This sudden discovery so infuriated the emperor that he lost whatever reason was left to him, and in his rage he summoned the three brothers before him to answer for their insult as though they had been common criminals. Diplomatic immunity had no meaning then to a vindictive monarch, nor did Christian decency.
Uppermost in the mind of the enraged Julian was the fact that Persia had sent him three Christians whom he was now determined to return as pagans, or not at all. No effort was made to mask the true purpose of a trial which had commenced in harassment and led to torture in what was presumed to effect a quick conversion. When the three brothers refused to disavow Christ, word was sent out that they had plotted against the state; and they were beheaded. Manuel, Savel and Ismael gave their lives for Christ on June 17, 362.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia.