March 26, 2015

Holy New Martyr George of Sofia in Bulgaria (+ 1437)

St. George of Sofia (Feast Day - March 26)

George, an Orthodox Christian soldier from Sofia, Bulgaria,* lived at a time (1402-1437) when the Ottoman Turks had established themselves in Europe and had made the former Byzantine city of Adrianople, which they named Edirne, their capital. Today this entire area, which includes the city of Constantinople, present day Istanbul, is referred to as European Turkey.

By the year 1437, the Ottoman Turks, who were originally from Central Asia, had come to Europe through Asia Minor. They arrived in Europe initially at the invitation of the Byzantines as allies and often as mercenary forces.** But before long, seeing the weakness and fratricidal attitudes of the Byzantines, they began subjugating areas for themselves and in a relatively brief period of time conquered most of what is today Greece, Bulgaria, Albania and Serbia. A few Byzantine possessions remained precariously independent but were continuously under severe military pressure, as was the imperial city of Constantinople. In fact, by this time the Byzantine emperors had become vassals of the Ottoman sultans.

In addition, beginning in the previous century and continuing for at least another hundred years, many Orthodox Christians from various walks of life - royal princes, landed magnates, military personnel, townsmen, merchants and peasants - joined the Ottoman Turks without necessarily adopting their religion, Islam.

George the soldier from Sofia in Bulgaria, who was a handsome, well-educated young man of thirty years of age, may have been such a person. He probably was serving in an Ottoman Muslim army unit which consisted of Muslims and Christians.

In March 1437, George's military unit was stationed near the city of Adrianople in Thrace, a once glorious city, which according to the author of the Life, "suffered under the deception of the vile race [the Ottomans]." One day his bow needed repair, so he went to the army's repair station. There he overheard some Muslim soldiers making fun of Jesus Christ. This made George very angry, and in a loud voice he proclaimed,

"Only Jesus Christ is great, Christ our God, whose wisdom has no limit. On the other hand, your own, whom you call prophet [Muhammad], does not even deserve to be numbered among the species of dog. Who is like our Lord Jesus Christ our God who dwells on high and surveys the lowly? Only one is holy, one is Lord, only one is worshipped, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen. Only He is the Creator, and everything else has been created."

This declaration brought an immediate reaction from the Muslim soldiers present, who fell upon George and struck him repeatedly in the face. But this did not cause George to keep silent. On the contrary he repeated in a louder voice what he said before. This was too much for the Muslims who charged and took hold of George and then took a bow string and tied it around his neck. Next they tried to tie his hands behind his back but were unsuccessful because of George's great strength. Finally they bound his hands and took him before the government officials.

Standing before the vali (governor), George was asked by him if he had said the things reported about him. Courageously George admitted that he had and added even more. He was consequently beaten and sent off to another official.

Again George was asked the same questions as before by other officials who said to him, "Cursed one, is what I was told true?"

Meanwhile the crowd was angrily demonstrating against George demanding his punishment, which frightened him a little. But George thought, "What good is it to conceal the truth, whatever I said I said." And so he replied to the official, "Yes tyrant, I said everything you heard."

An official then said in a stern voice, "Retract [what you said] and confess to the one [Muhammad] you cursed and you will acquire from us honor and gifts."

To this George responded,

"God forbid I should do this, to perish with a mortal man [Muhammad] who does not even know a small part of the truth, but I confess the Lord Jesus Christ, my God and Maker, who reigns eternally. I have traveled much in the world and I have never failed to observe and worship the life-giving tomb of my Lord Jesus Christ, but never the one you believe to be a prophet. And as I believe, I declare with a great voice Him whom I know as a living, worshipful God. And from this one [Muhammad], I flee so that I will not be judged with the world."

The vali then pointed to the crowd and said to George, "Look at the crowd which is asking for you to be burned, and I have nothing to say to them."

George, smiling, said, "If you become the cause of this good thing [my death], I will owe you a great debt. And if you order this now, I will kiss your hand continuously."

The vali turned to those around him and said, "Leave him [George] until I decide about him."

This did not prevent George from being beaten. On the way to the prison all the Muslims present joined in cursing, spitting and beating upon him while a large crowd followed, and no one neglected to hit him. Through all of this, George remained calm. Finally they arrived at the fort where George was thrown into prison. There he was ridiculed and tortured. But he endured all this with great fortitude with the assurance the Lord was with him.

On the next day, many leading religious teachers arrived and began questioning him. One of them said, "We did not come here except to preach and increase the [Muslim] faith. And now we see our prophet blasphemed in the market place. If these things were done in Constantinople, the pride of the Romans, a place which is theirs, we would have killed him immediately so we would have been rewarded by the prophet."

They then ordered George to be brought to them. When George arrived he showed no fear but joy, for he witnessed for Christ and mocked the Muslim faith.

Standing before the religious leaders, he did not take back what he said about Islam, but added more. When one of the religious leaders heard this, he said, "I know the law, judge him worthy of being beaten but not of burning."

But the assembled crowd would have none of this. They shouted, "Kill him! Kill him! Burn him in the fire!"

This frightened the religious leader who then said, "Take him and judge him according to the law."

George was immediately taken to the fire which had been prepared. He approached it without any fear, remembering the Lord who said, "Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul" (Mt. 10:28).

Even at the last minute those Muslims near him promised him rewards and honors if he would accept the Muslim religion. But George refused. Then he heard insults and curses.

A basket was brought and George was put into it and then placed in the fire. When the basket burned, George's body convulsed. Then someone pierced his stomach with a spear and his intestines poured out. This seemed to have caused the flames to increase ten-fold. Then other materials were added, such as wood and resin, even the carcass of a dead dog. This was done on purpose as an insult to the Orthodox Christian faithful so they would not be able to identify George's relics and thus would be deprived of the grace that would emanate from them.

The fire burned from 5:00 p.m. until the dawn of the next day. Meanwhile George's body had become a pile of dust, which the Muslims gathered up and scattered to the four winds to prevent the Christians from collecting it.

For days, light in various forms, that is, as a flame, a beam, and in a number of other ways, was seen descending from above and illuminating the execution site.***

Thus George, the Orthodox Christian soldier from Sofia, Bulgaria, gave his life for the love of Jesus Christ in the city of Adrianople of Great Tuesday of Holy Week, March 26, in the year 1437.

* This is one of the earliest references to Sofia; previously the city had been called Triaditsa by the Byzantines. See Patrineles, Anekdote diegese, p. 66, note.

** This phenomenon is explained by the relatively tolerant treatment accorded to the Orthodox Christians by the Muslim Ottoman Turks who, initially at least, provided much needed security, lower taxes, and religious tolerance. Especially in Asia Minor, the neglect of the Orthodox Christians by the Byzantine government also contributed to this tendency.

*** According to the text, the account of the martyrdom was written by an eyewitness who maintained that he had recorded all the events faithfully and truthfully as they had taken place, without adding anything extraneous to them. Chrestos Patrineles, who has made a special study of this Life, believes the anonymous author wrote the account very soon after the martyrdom but before the death of Ecumenical Patriarch Joseph II (June 1439), for whom there is a prayer at the end of the account, as there is for Emperor John VIII Palaiologos (1425-1448). See Patrineles, p. 65.

Witnesses For Christ: Orthodox Christian Neomartyrs of the Ottoman Period 1437-1860, by Nomikos Michael Vaporis, pp. 32-36. Hymns translated by John Sanidopoulos.