Between the years 850 and 859, something unexpected happened in Córdoba. Some forty-eight Christians were martyred. Contemporary church historians usually refer to them as “voluntary martyrs” because almost all of them, by their own will, presented themselves in front of the Muslim authorities and confessed themselves to be Christians, denouncing Islam and Mohammed as a false prophet at the same time. The principal source about these events is the writings of Eulogius, a priest from Córdoba. He was elected to be a bishop of Toledo but was not ordained because he suffered a violent death, having hidden in his house a certain Leocritia, who converted to Christianity from Islam. This gave the authorities the legal ground for both of them to be executed.
Numerous studies are dedicated to the “voluntary martyrs,” giving various explanations for the sudden uprising.[i] I will not analyze them now; instead, I will try to see what is relevant in their story for today.
It would be easy to think their martyrdom was a conflict between the Christian population and the Muslim state, but this is only partly true. The fact is that it was an expression of a confrontation within the Christian community. While the martyrs were authentic saints for Eulogius and other similarly-minded Christians, for others, including his bishop Reccafred, they were mere extremists and agents provocateurs who were threatening a fragile balance of a Christian community in a Muslim state. In their view, the suffering of the martyrs was a consequence and expression of their vainglory and pride. Basically, the opponents of the martyr movement, who were assimilated to life in a Muslim environment, had three arguments that they used to undermine the validity of “voluntary martyrdom.”
To them, “voluntary martyrdom” was not genuine in the first place because it was martyrdom without paganism. Islam did not demand pagan sacrifices, customary in the Greco-Roman culture, and the Christians, being “the people of the Book,” had their space to live in, albeit restricted and limited, within the Muslim society.
In the second place, it was martyrdom without persecution. No one prohibited the Christians from participating in the liturgical services; no one forced them to join in non-Christian celebrations. Moreover, when the presumed martyrs were executed, no elaborate tortures were exercised.
In the third place, it was martyrdom without miracles. In the eyes of Eulogius’ opponents, martyrdom has to follow the literary canon of passio, which, in its turn, implies direct divine intervention, helping the martyrs to endure the suffering in a supernatural way and producing miraculous signs to the witnesses of the event.
Thus, when Eulogius of Córdoba wrote his principal treatise, “Memoriale sanctorum,” it was not simply a description but an apology for the “voluntary martyrdom.” In the first part of this book, as well as in “Liber Apologeticus Martyrum,” he gives a detailed response to the widespread accusations against the martyrs.
For Eulogius, no new revelation was possible after the Gospel; therefore, Muhammad was a false prophet and a heretic par excellence. Islam is, therefore, not superior but inferior to the paganism of the past.
As far as the persecutions are concerned, Eulogius was quick to refer to the ancient martyrs, beginning from the apostle Paul, who were seeking the crown of glory themselves. Humiliation, mockery, hatred, taxation, destruction of churches (the famous mosque in Córdoba was built on the site of the church of St Vincent of Zaragoza)—all this presented to Eulogius a picture of persecution, which was very real. To him, the mechanisms and instruments of implementing the execution made no difference once Christians were killed for confessing their faith.
Regarding the miracles, for Eulogius, their absence was the deficiency of the community, not of the martyrs themselves, as visible miracles express the faith of the witnesses. Besides, by the time such miracles ended, they were no longer needed by the Christians. As the eschaton is coming closer, faith must result from inner labor, not supernatural signs.
Time showed Eulogius was right: all of these martyrs are venerated by the Catholic Church, and their names may also be found in the synaxarion of the ancient saints of Spain and Portugal, venerated locally by the Orthodox people in the respective countries. The San Pedro church in Córdoba contains some of their relics, while the relics of Saint Leocritia and Saint Eulogius himself may be venerated in the Cámara Santa (Holy Chamber) of the Oviedo Cathedral.
There are times when the Church faces the same confrontation as in 9th-century Córdoba. This happens when a part of the church, however important, believes that no persecutions take place or is unwilling to recognize them, yet another part, however small, believes that the persecutions indeed do take place, even if it is not the whole Christian community that is subject to them.
For example, one can remember how in 1965 in the time of Soviet Union, two priests of the Russian Orthodox Church, Fr. Gleb Yakinin and Fr. Nikolay Eshliman addressed an open letter to Patriarch Alexis I (Simansky). Copies of the letter were sent to diocesan bishops, as well as to the civil authorities. The letter’s subject was precisely the persecution to which the Church was subject at the time. Although some bishops supported their case, the institutional Church did not see itself in a position to recognize openly the persecution to which it was subjected by the Soviet authorities for half a century by that time, even though this was a matter of common knowledge both in the country and abroad. Consequently, in 1966, both priests were suspended “until their repentance for the activity which is scandalizing and harmful to the Church.” Fr. Gleb Yakunin was restored to his priestly orders only in 1987.
We can ask the same question today. Is the Orthodox Church persecuted in Belarus, Ukraine, or Russia today? The authorities of the respective countries would clearly say “no.” Out of all three examples, only the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, headed by metropolitan Onuphry, is ready to accept the discrimination and infringements of the rights of the Orthodox Christians publicly, although avoiding the term “persecution.” The resource “Christians against the war” presents an impressive list of clergy and laity in Russia and Belarus who have been persecuted by religious and state authorities for their anti-war stance or support of Ukraine in defense from aggression. While for all these people, their position is an expression of their Christian faith, it is a political statement for both states. They gladly accept purely political statements from Christian clergy and laity, but only in support of their official policy.
According to Jane Ellis, a renowned professor of the Moscow Spiritual Academy, Alexey Osipov, gave testimony against Fr. Gleb Yakunin at his trial in 1980[ii]. Recently, he was asked in one of the numerous interviews about a book written by a Russian Orthodox priest in Madrid on patriotism: Does one have a right to ask whether a Christian is obliged to be a patriot? According to the professor, it is a “satanic thing” even to pose such a question. If a state permits the celebration of a liturgical cult, a Christian must be totally and thoroughly loyal to the state. This position explains how the Russian Orthodox Church, in its various jurisdictions, has shown itself faithful to both the most frightening dictatorships in the 20th century.
Unless we learn to ask the “satanic questions” and look for answers, there is little hope of escaping the trap, which has become somewhat of a home.
[i] One could begin approaching the subject with “Christian Martyrs in Muslim Spain” by K.B. Wolf, and “The Martyrs of Cordoba: Community and Family Conflict in an Age of Mass Conversion” by J. A. Coope.
[ii] Ellis, J. The Russian Orthodox Church: A Contemporary History. Indiana University Press, 1986. P. 439.
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