Syrian George by Martin Spafford
The true story of St. George: child soldier, migrant, prisoner of conscience, murdered for his beliefs
When I realised the JtoJ presence at Speakers’ Corner was on St George’s Day, I thought I’d find out a bit more about his story: not the dragon-slaying myth but what’s known of the real person. It appears he was born in the late third century to Greek Christian parents. His father was from Cappadocia in modern Turkey and his mother was from the region that includes today’s Syria, Israel and Palestine. On the death of his father he left Syria and joined the Roman army as a teenager, rising to become one of emperor Diocletian’s personal guards.
All changed for George in the year 303 when Diocletian purged his army of Christians, who were arrested and ordered to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods on pain of death. George refused to renounce his faith and so was brutally tortured and beheaded in public in the city of Nicomedia in what is now Turkey.
So we have a child soldier, a migrant, a prisoner of conscience and the victim of an egotistical, tyrannical, imperial ruler who carries out the ethnic cleansing of a faith community. Tortured and murdered for his beliefs in the very part of the world where such events are now taking place, it seems to me that George the real human being speaks to us today in a way the dragon slayer never can.
Perhaps it’s time for us to reclaim the man from the myth. If we peel away how he has been used by Crusaders, empire builders and warmongers, maybe we can embrace this young man who, though sucked into the belly of the imperial beast, refused to surrender his identity at the cost of his life. Our own world is full of Georges and this George – migrant, colonised, resistant, brave – is closer to who we are.
So, on the principle that at JtoJ we know how stories of ‘ordinary’ people in the past who have stood up for justice can inspire us, George’s was the story I told in Hyde Park. And I’ll think of him every year when the day comes round, at last with fondness.