New Martyrs of the Turkish Yoke

May 29, 1453 was a dark day for Orthodox Christians living in the great Byzantine empire. Muslim troops attacked and conquered the great city of Constantinople, killing the Orthodox emperor Constantine XI and pillaging the city.  Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, a Christian empire that flourished for 1,000 years, now became the Ottoman Empire, ruled by a people who were enemies of Christ and Christianity.  Crosses were torn from the domes of churches and icons painted over as churches were converted to mosques, most notably the famed Hagia Sophia Cathedral.  While the new Ottoman rulers proclaimed their “tolerance” of Orthodox Christianity, they soon embarked on a program of both active and passive persecution designed to hinder and slowly strangle the Christian Faith. 

The Sultan considered himself as the “protector” of the Orthodox Christians, but in reality he and his successors held a firm control over the Orthodox Church preventing it from fulfilling its mission and ministry.  Orthodox Christians were required to pay a special tax and had no rights of citizenship.  They could not marry Muslims and it was a crime, punishable by death, to convert a Muslim to Christianity.  The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople could not be elected without the permission of the Sultan and was required to pay a heavy tax before he could begin his ministry.  With this source of revenue for their government, the Sultan often forced the re-election of the Patriarch on a regular basis. 

Christian boys, ages 6-14, were kidnapped from their families and given to Turkish Muslim families for forced conversion to Islam and indoctrination into the Turkish social system.  These boys formed the basis of an elite military unit known as the Janissaries.  With time, many Orthodox families willingly surrendered their sons to become Janissaries because of the social advancement and success that it promised. These Christian parents ignored the words of the Lord: 

“What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”  (Mark 8:36)


Along with this slow strangulation of the Orthodox Faith, the new Muslim lords frequently resorted to violence and death to “encourage” Christians to adopt Islam and to destroy the Christian Faith.   It has been estimated that the Turks were responsible for the deaths of 11 Orthodox Patriarchs, 100 bishops and thousands of priests and faithful Orthodox Christians throughout the Ottoman Empire.  These “New Martyrs” can be grouped into four categories:

  1. Christians who converted to Islam but eventually repented and returned to Christianity. Apostasy of Islam was a crime punishable by death under Islamic law.
  2. Muslims who converted to Christianity.
  3. Christians who denounced Mohammed or Islam
  4. Christian who refused to convert to Islam

Thousands of Orthodox Christians willingly accepted death rather than deny their Lord Jesus.  They took to heart His promise:  “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”  (Matthew 10:28)

 Here are the stories of just a few of them:

Virgin Martyr Zlata  was born into a poor, peasant family in a small village in Bulgaria.  Because of her exceptional beauty she attracted the attention of a Muslim man who kidnapped her and tried to entice her to embrace Islam and become his wife.  Despite his promises of money and a comfortable life, she remained faithful to her Christ.  She told him:  “I believe in Christ, and Him alone do I know as my Bridegroom. I will never deny Him, even though you subject me to a thousand tortures and cut me into pieces."  Unable to convince her, he turned Zlata over to the local Muslim women who likewise spent months trying to convince her to embrace their faith.  They brought her parents and sisters to her, threatening them with death if they did not convince Zlata to embrace Islam.  Her terrified family told her:  "O daughter, have mercy on yourself and on us, your parents and sisters; deny Christ in words only, so that we can all be happy, for Christ is merciful. He would forgive such a sin, committed due to the necessities of life."  Turning to her parents and sisters, she told them: "You who force me to deny Christ, the True God, are no longer my parents and my sisters. In your place will be my Father, Jesus Christ, mother - the Most Holy Mother of God, and my sisters and brothers - all saints”.  Zlata was thrown into prison for three months where she endured daily beatings.  She was hauled into the town square, publicly raped while her father was forced to watch, hung upside down over a fire and then hung from a tree on October 18, 1795.   

Monk Cosmas of Aetolia was born in the Aetolia region in western Greece and became a monk in Philotheou Monastery on the Holy Mountain – Mount Athos.  After three years in the monastery he received a blessing to travel to remote regions throughout Greece, its islands, and Albania to encourage the faith of Orthodox Christians living under Muslim domination.  When he entered a village he would set up a Cross in the town square and begin preaching and teaching the Gospel of Christ.  He established churches and schools throughout Greece and Albania.  Without any formal charges against him, he was hanged by the Muslims in what is today Albania on August 24, 1779. 

Monk Gideon of Karakallou Monastery was born with the name of Nicholas in a small town in northeastern Greece.  At a young age his employer convinced him to accept Islam but with time Nicholas regretted his denial of the Lord Jesus and decided to return to the Orthodox Faith.  Because he faced execution for his apostasy of Islam, Nicholas went into hiding, traveling to various places until he found his way to Mount Athos and became a monk at Karakallou Monastery.  There he repented of his great sin and was readmitted to the Church through the Holy Mysteries of Chrismation, Confession and Holy Eucharist.  Wanting to correct his previous, public sin, he returned to the town where he denied Christ and publicly proclaimed his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  The Muslim authorities, shaved him, tied up upside down on a donkey and paraded him through the town.  His hands and feet were chopped off and he was thrown alive into a sewer where he gave his soul into the hands of his Lord.

Patriarch Gregory V of Constantinople was the Ecumenical Patriarch from 1797-1798, again from 1806-1808 and elected again in 1818. (an example of the Turks forcing new Patriarchal elections to extort more taxes)   On March 25, 1821, the Greeks rose up against their Ottoman oppressors and formally declared the beginning of a revolution.  In response, the Turks dragged  Patriarch Gregory out of his Cathedral on Holy Pascha while still wearing his episcopal vestments and hung him from the front gates of the Patriarchate.  He body remained hanging for two days until it was thrown into the sea where it was recovered by Greek shipmen.  His holy relics are enshrined today in the Metropolitan Cathedral  in Athens.  Till this day, the main gate of the Patriarchate is welded shut in memory of St. Gregory’s martyrdom.

Metropolitan Chrysostom of Smyrna was the metropolitan of this city in Turkey in the early part of the 20th century.  Due to the ongoing struggles between the Orthodox Greek and Muslim Turks, his life was often in danger as the de facto leader of the Greek community.  Despite warnings from the consuls of England and France, he refused to abandon his people.  Following the Divine Liturgy he was arrested on August 27, 1922 and turned over to a Turkish mob.  Several French soldiers in the area witnessed what happened next:  “…they began to beat him with their fists and sticks and spit in his face.  They riddled him with stabs, tore his beard off, gouged his eyes out and cut off his nose and ears.  He was then dragged around the city by a vehicle and eventually died from his wounds  An eyewitness later reported that the Metropolitan did not beg, scream or curse under this torture but only mumbled “Holy Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”.

Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.  Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.   (Revelation 19:6-8)

Ongoing Persecution

The story of these New Martyrs is, unfortunately, not over as Orthodox Christians continue to face persecution and death at the hands of Muslims.  Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople is routinely the target of death threats, and as recently as 2004 a Turkish mob burned him in effigy outside of the Patriarchate and a grenade was thrown at his Cathedral.  In Egypt, Coptic Orthodox Christians are frequent targets of Muslim hate including a bombing attack on a Coptic Orthodox Church on New Years Day, 2011 in which 23 Orthodox Christians were killed and the beheading of 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians on a beach in Libya in 2015.  According to the organization “Open Doors”  “Islamic extremism is a primary drive of Christian persecution in eight out of the ten most dangerous places for Christians to live”. 

 - Father Edward Pehanich