Wednesday, 3 January 2018


A Saudi young man of 23 may soon become a martyr. His name is Ali al-Nimr. Awaiting execution by beheading in a Saudi jail because of ‘crimes’ committed aged 17. A non-violent activist, Ali only took part in a protest. His uncle, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, also was a peaceful Saudi dissident. For that, he was sentenced to death and executed two years ago in Riyadh, despite worldwide protests. I was among those who agitated on his behalf outside the London Saudi embassy.

The Nimr family are Shia’ Muslims. A section of Islam that venerates the Sheikh as a martyr. A fact that gives the lie to the cliché idea that to be a Muslim martyr you must die wielding the sword, in war against infidels. Sheikh Nimr’s ‘jihad’ - an Arabic word that means struggle, not necessarily armed - had no violence in it. He defended the human rights of his people, the Shia’ minority in Saudi. His nephew, a high school student when he was arrested, may soon meet the same, inhuman fate.

‘Martyr’ - Arabic shahid – is etymologically related to the word shahada, the profession of faith whose recitation makes one a member of the Umma. However, shahid is used liberally by Muslims. In Egypt, soldiers who fell in the country’s wars are called martyrs. Even those who died fighting fellow Muslims. When Nasser in the 70’s intervened in the Yemeni civil war, many Egyptian conscripts were killed by Yemeni tribesmen – or were castrated by their captors. (For a man, a martyrdom of sorts.) No doubt the Yemenis thought of their own fallen as martyrs. Bit of a paradox. Did soldiers on either side die for Islam? Or was one side truly Muslim and the other not? How to tell? Ultimately only God knows to whom he’ll throw open the doors of Paradise or…the gates of Hell.

The early Christian martyrs were non-violent. They did not resist their tormentors. Martyrs – from Greek martureo, to witness or bear testimony - suffered agonising tortures and death without trying to strike back. Even those who were soldiers and knew how to fight. Like SS Sergius and Bacchus. Two young officers in the Roman army who refused to look on Emperor Maximian as he was offering sacrifice to Jupiter. They could have tried to assassinate the pagan ruler but they did not. The glorious crown of martyrdom they got not by shedding the blood of their persecutors but by having their own blood shed for the Prince of Peace, Christ. (The LGBT brigade suggest Sergius and Bacchus were a gay couple but that’s nonsense.)

Not all Christian martyrs have been like that. The epic movie ‘Cristiada’, starring Andy Garcia, depicts the battles of the Mexican Catholic rebels who called themselves ‘Cristeros’, soldiers of Christ. All they sought was to worship God in peace. To pray in their churches, attend Mass, receive holy Communion, confession and the other Sacraments. When Mexico’s freemason President Calles enacted violently anti-Christian legislation, abolishing the people’s religious rights, the Cristeros did not turn the other cheek. They rose in revolt. Singing ‘Viva Cristo Rey’, they went into battle, much more poorly armed, against the federal troops. One of the film’s heroes is young Jose’. Later he falls into the hands of the state troops, is tortured and then executed. Like many Cristeros he was hanged and left to rot on the gallows, to terrorise potential rebels. Was Jose a martyr? Pope Benedict XVI said so. He raised Jose to the glory of the altars, along with 12 other martyrs of the
rebellion. His example shows that not all Christian martyrs have to eschew fighting.

The Cristeros fought a war of self-defence, against an oppressive, unjust regime. Such fighting is sanctioned by the Catholic doctrine of just war and indeed today recognised by the UN Rights Charter. Those who engage in such defensive wars do not per se commit sin but, if they die, should the Church also treat them as martyrs? That must be for the Catholic Church to decide, not for an obscure Anglican parson like Fr Frank. The Anglican Church has no official machinery for honouring martyrs but, if you stand in front of Westminster Abbey West Door and look above it you will see the statues of ten ‘modern martyrs’. Hope God approves…

Young Ali Nimr’s predicament is an indictment of the Desert Kingdom’s grotesque ‘justice’. His crimes were to demonstrate publicly during the Arab Spring, to use a blackberry to keep in touch with others and to give advice to fellow protesters how to give first aid to the wounded. The Saudi authorities say he had a gun but that must have been planted as it contradicts the whole ethos of his protest. The boy was tortured to force him to confess a bogus confession. Prior to his show trial he was incarcerated for two years, with no access to a lawyer. They didn’t even tell him the charges, until well into the trial. (Does it sound a bit like Kafka’s nightmarish Trial?) Ali’s death sentence includes ‘being crucified’. Does that put you in mind of someone else?

Ordinary Saudis are not the enemies. I have known some delightful students hailing from there. The House of Saud is the problem. The ultra-wealthy, corrupting cabal which is now cosying up to Israel’s Netanyahu, not quite Palestine's best friend. And with whom Prince Charles and President Trump like to play the sword dance with. Maybe when the Donald takes a break from bashing Iran he could find the heart to intercede with his Saudi chums to spare the life of an innocent young man called Ali al-Nimr.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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