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Witnesses for Christ:
Orthodox Christian Neomartyrs of the Ottoman Period, 1437-1860
Witnesses for Christ: Orthodox Christian Neomartyrs of the Ottoman Period, 1437-1860. By Nomikos Michael Vaporis. (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. 2000. Pp xiv, 377. $18.95 paperback.)
As the Ottoman Empire expanded, more and more Orthodox Christians became the subjects of the sultans. For the most part, officials of the Empire were content to allow the Christian population the freedom to practice their religion so long as they paid their taxes. They also had to be willing to live as second-class citizens throughout their lives. [End Page 475]
Islamic law forbids forced conversions, but at certain times and places, usually when the Empire was in distress, Turkish authorities gave vent to their frustrations, becoming persecutors, much as in the manner of ancient Rome. The Orthodox were arrested on a variety of charges. The most serious was that of having made a profession of faith in Islam, and now deciding to retract it. Women who spurned Muslim suitors were in a very precarious situation.
Hauled before a Muslim court, the unfortunate victim was given the opportunity of returning to Islam or facing capital punishment. Before execution, which was always in some public place, the accused usually had to endure an exquisite array of tortures.
The author has gathered the stories of the last days of these men and women, the neomartyrs, as an inspiration, as well as an historical account. There are approximately 200 of them in this volume, grouped according to the century in which they lived. The majority come from the Balkans, but others were martyred in Southwest Asia and Egypt. A few accounts are of Muslim converts to the Orthodox faith.
Several records of the neomartyrs' trials run for three or four pages of text, and offer details of the contest between the accused and the judge. Others contain only a few lines. Certainly not every martyr had a biographer to record the events surrounding his or her death. The trials follow a certain pattern. The accused is arrested and charged with a crime against Islam, and then brought before an official who investigates the truth of the matter. The judge promises great rewards for apostasy, but the Christian remains firm. The refusal merits execution.
One of the remarkable aspects of this martyrology is the broad spectrum from which the neomartyrs were drawn. Although many were clerics or monks, as might be expected, others are George the Tailor, Elias the Barber, John the Boatman, or Helen Bekiaris, an adolescent. These were people in ordinary occupations, men and women, who probably had very little formal education in Orthodoxy, but whose attachment to Christ led them to choose a painful death rather than abandon their religion.
Unfortunately, Father Vaporis died before the publication of his collection. In it he has left a living testimony of his own faith. The neomartyrs are not well known to western Christians, but this book will make it possible to learn of their heroism and devotion to their faith.
Charles A. Frazee
Episcopal Theological School at Claremont