ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Martyrs of Najran

A group of Coptic Christians in the sixth century are remembered for their faith.

Every year on the 24th of October the Roman Catholic Church commemorates “the Martyrs of Najran.” Unless he has stumbled across the entry in some such books as Butler’s Lives of the Saints, the average person is not likely to have heard of either the martyrs or of Najran.

The valley of Najran is in southwestern Saudi Arabia, just north of Yemen. It was noteworthy for the small community of Jews living there until they emigrated to Israel in the 1950s.

The martyrs met their fate in the sixth century. They were the victims of a Himyarite convert to Judaism called Dhu Nuwas (“curly-head”) who sacked the principal town of Najran and decreed death for every Christian there who would not apostasize.

The leader of these ancient Christians was a certain ‘Abd Allah ibn Harith (who became St. Aretas in the Roman martyrology). He and his soldiers were beheaded. Priests, deacons, nuns and laymen were thrown into a ditch filled with burning fuel. Four thousand men, women, and children were slain, including a boy of five who jumped into the flames to be with his mother.

A shiver of horror swept through the then civilized world as written and oral reports of the massacre reached such cities as Alexandria and Byzantium. Whether or not the partisan reports of this atrocity were exaggerated, they stirred profound reactions. The Patriarch of Alexandria wrote his bishops urging commemoration of the martyrs, and he joined the Byzantine Emperor Justin I in urging the Ruler of Abyssinia to avenge the martyrs and reconquer Najran. The Abyssinian was successful, and he became St. Elesbaan.

Islamic scholars generally take certain verses in the Koran (Surah LXXXV, al-Buruj) as a condemnation of the perpetrators of the massacre. The key lines in translation are:

“Destroyed were the owners of the ditch, of the fuel-fed fire…. Lo! they who persecute believing men and believing women and repent not, theirs verily will be the doom of hell and theirs the doom of burning.”

The ruins of the town of al-Ukhdud, “the ditch,” are prominent in Najran to this day. They are specifically protected by regulations promulgated on behalf of the Saudi Arab Department of Antiquities.

Incidentally, the martyrs were not Roman Catholics. They were Copts – some old-fashioned Catholic churchmen might have called them monophysite schismatics. But the good ecclesiastical scholar who placed them in the Roman Martyrology years ago manifestly felt the martyrs were in Paradise, where they belonged.

William Mulligan is a freelance journalist who is currently living in Saudi Arabia.

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