Saint Aquilina of Thessalonica is also known as Saint Aquilina the New Martyr. She was a Greek Christian who lived in the 18th century, when Greece was ruled by the Muslim Ottoman empire. In this time Greek Orthodox Christians suffered persecution and the threat of forced conversion to Islam.
When she was a baby, her father accidentally killed a Turkish neighbour, and converted to Islam. However Saint Aquilina's mother was a pious Christian, and raised her to hold firm in her faith in Christ. When she came of age, the Ottoman authorities insisted that Saint Aquilina convert to Islam too, and when she refused she was beaten to death.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saint Aquilina of Thessalonica, also known as Saint Aquilina the New Martyr
Saint Aquilinia was a Greek Christian, at a time when Greece was then other the rule of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, and Christians in Greece suffered persecution, and the threat of forced conversion to Islam. For an overview of this persecution, let us read from an article by Fr Demetrios J. Constantelos (2004) Altruistic Suicide or Altruistic Martyrdom? Christian Greek Orthodox Neomartyrs: A Case Study, Archives of Suicide Research, 8:1, 57-71, DOI: 10.1080/13811110490243813
According to several accounts, from the conquest of Constantinople to the last phase of the Greek War of Independence, the Ottoman Turks condemned to death 11 Ecumenical Patriarchs of Constantinople, nearly 100 bishops, and several thousands of priests, deacons and monks (Bompolines, 1952; Paparounis, no date; Perantones, 1972; Pouqueville, 1824; Vaporis, 2000). It is impossible to say with certainty how many men of the cloth were forced to apostatise. Nevertheless, many preferred martyrdom to apostasy, and of the above thousands, several have been canonized and raised to sainthood by the Greek Orthodox Church.
The 172 cases can be classified in 5 major categories of martyrdom. Some martyrs were accused of being political offenders and traitors to the Ottoman state; others were charged with being agitators because they had advocated a better treatment of Christians or because they had spoken on behalf of justice. For example, in the Metropolitan of Corinth, Ζacharias, executed in 1684, was accused of maintaining a correspondence with the Venetians. At his trial Zacharias insisted that he was innocent of the accusation but the Turks beat him cruelly. He was offered pardon on condition that he apostatise to Islam. When the Metropolitan refused, the judge condemned him to death by torture (Delahaye, p. 704). There are 15 more neo-martyrs in this category.
The second category includes martyrs who were native Ottomans and were brought up in the Islamic faith. For some reason, however, either on their own initiative or through the efforts of missionaries they became Christians. Α Muslim was forbidden to deny his faith on pain of death. The same rule applied to all Muslims whether by birth or by conversion. The Roman Catholic missionary Francis Lucas of Smyrna recorded the extraordinary martyrdom of 23 Muslim Turks who were put to death in the year 1649 at Thyatira, Asia Minor. In addition to the anonymous martyrs in this category, we know of five more. Some may have been of Christian ancestry.
The third class of martyrs includes zealous Christians who conducted missionary activity either among Christians trying to sustain them in their faith, or among Muslims and Jews. For example, the monk Makarios, prompted by missionary enthusiasm, decided to preach before a large crowd of Muslims in a market place in Thessalonica. He was apprehended by the Turkish authorities and was thrown into the prison. After several tortures, he was offered pardon on condition that he embraces Islam. When he refused to apostatise; he was beheaded in the year 1527 (Perantones, 1972, 3:325-526). Ιn addition to Makarios, 15 more were put to death because of missionary activity.
Closely related to the previous list, there were some idealistic men who aspired to earn the crown of martyrdom in imitation of the ancient Christian martyrs. The reading of martyrologies and lives of saints was popular in the Greek church under Ottoman captivity and it exerted an influence to the extent that some tried to imitate the early heroes of Christianity. For instance, Romanos, from central Greece, went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. While a guest at the Monastery of St. Sabbas, he was inspired by listening to the Acts of the Martyrs, which was read during a meal in the monastery. He desired to become a martyr himself and his desire was fulfilled in 1694 (Delahaye, 1921, pp. 705-07; Perantones, 1972, 3:443-47). Four more belong to this category.
The fifth and most numerous category includes men and women who, for various reasons and at different stages of their life, apostatised from Greek Orthodox Christianity to Islam and later decided to return to their ancestral faith. Guilt not as an aspect of personality structure as psychological theory advocates, but a guilt, which arose from a precise kind of behaviour and from specific circumstances and events. Many of them, seeking atonement for having denied their faith, became martyrs. For example, Demetrios of Tripolis in the Peloponnesos as an orphan entered the service of a Muslim who converted him to Islam. Upon becoming an adult and reflecting on his apostasy, he left Tripolis and sought the advice of a spiritual father. He confessed his apostasy and was received in secret by the church. Nevertheless, he had nο peace of mind and felt the need to atone for his sin with martyrdom. He returned to Tripolis, where he presented himself to his old master as a Christian ready to wash away the stain of his apostasy with his blood. The outcome was that he was put to death on April 14, 1803 (Perantones, 1972, 1:163-65; Delahaye, p. 707). We know by name 52 more who sought atonement by martyrdom. (8:20)
No less important are the 48 additional neo-martyrs who were condemned to death for diverse reasons. Some were accused of insulting the Muslim faith or of throwing something against the wall of a mosque. Others were accused of sexual advances toward a Turk; still others of making a public confession such as "Ι will become a Turk" without meaning it (Delahaye, 1921, p. 708; Perantones, 1972, 3:409, 421, 470). There are several more whose reasons for condemnation are not stated by the sources. Their names are mentioned but very little else.
The existence of neo-martyrs attests to a religious revival in the Greek Orthodox Church, which however did not take place in the seventeenth century, as a modem scholar suggests (Vitti, 1963), but in the eighteenth. Ιn fact most neo-martyrs were put to death in the eighteenth and in the first half οf the nineteenth centuries. Six became martyrs between 1453 and 1499; 22 between 1500 and 1599; 38 between 1600 and 1699; 51 between 1700 and 1799; and 55 between 1800 and 1867.
Most of the neo-martyrs came from the lower classes and from the provinces. Several professions were represented, including physicians, teachers, and of course, the clergy. But the majority was from various ranks: farmers, artisans, traders, secretaries, merchants, barbers, gardeners, grocers, sailors, household servants, travelling vendors, coffeehouse keepers, and more.
Saint Aquilina lived in the village of Zagliberi in Thessalonica, Greece in the 18th century. When she was a baby, her father got into an argument with a Turk, and accidentally killed him. Her father then chose to convert to Islam in order to escape the death penalty. Saint Aquilina’s mother, however, was a devoted Christian, and continued to raise their daughter as a Christian. We will read this account of her life by St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite. This translation is from a book, New Martyrs of the Turkish Yoke, Translated by Leonidas J. Papadopoulos, Georgia Lizardos & others St Nectarios Press, Seattle, Washington 1985.
One day the Saint;s father quarreled and wrestled with a Turkish neighbour (since both Christians and Turks lived side by side in this place). By the Evil One's collaboration he struck and slew the Hagarene. Whereupon he was arrested by the local authorities, who led him to the pasha of Thessalonica to have him condemned. Now he was terrified of death and sought acquittal, so he offered to become a Muslim. (Alas, his fall!) Therefore, they did not execute him. At that time Akylina was an infant nursing on her mother's milk. After the passage of some time, the Turks enjoined her father that he must have his daughter become a Muslim. He told them:
"Do not be concerned about my daughter. She is under my authority and I will convert her when I want." However, Akylina's mother remained anchored in the Faith of Christ and never ceased every hour to exhort her child to stand firmly in the Faith of Christ and not to ever deny Jesus Christ. When the maiden reached 18 years of age, the Turks once again spoke with her father concerning the conversion. At this point he summoned Akylina and said: "My child, other Turks have approached me daily on the matter of your accepting Mohammedanism. Therefore, either now or a little later, you will become a Muslim, only make the decision in a day or two, so the Muslims will not harass me." Yet the Saint, who was ignited and inflamed with the love of Christ, with great courage declared: "Perhaps you think that I have the same little faith as yourself to deny my Maker and Creator, the Lord Jesus Christ Who submitted to the cross and death for our sake? I refuse. I am prepared to undergo the woeful torment, even death, for the love of Christ." By these superb and admirable statements she was not the daughter of the thrice-miserable father, but truly the daughter of Christ the Heavenly King! Observing the Saint's unswerving belief, the father went before the Turks and divulged to them: "I am unable to induce my daughter to change her beliefs; you do with her whatever you will." Upon hearing this they went into a flurry, and immediately dispatched men of the court to apprehend the Martyr. Seeing them approaching, the Saint's blessed mother took hold of Akylina, and gave her this final instruction: "Lo, my most beloved child and my sweetest daughter, Akylina. Behold, fruit of my womb, the hour has arrived of which I have warned you. Therefore, my girl, attend and obey my admonition. Display courage in the torments which you will face and do not renounce Christ." Likewise, Akylina replied: "Have no fear, my mother, for I have this intention. The All-kind God will be my help. Pray for me." Thus, they bid each other farewell with tears. The servant of the judge bound the Saint and led her to the tribunal. The compassionate mother followed after her beloved daughter to the place of condemnation, since motherly feelings could not conceive of being separated from her dear child. However those that had taken her intocustody, locked her outside the courtyard. Akylina was taken inside into the presence of the judge, who in a coarse manner blurted out to her: "Eh! You, become a Muslim." The Saint exclaimed: "No, I will not become one. Never will I forsake my belief and my Master Christ!" Hearing this, the judge became incensed. Therefore he commanded that the Saint be undressed and be left wearing only her chemise. Then they tied Akylina to a column and two servants beat her with rods for many hours. Notwithstanding, the Martyr underwent this torture bravely. Afterwards the judge and other Turks had the Martyr brought forward again before them. They began to flatter Akylina and promise her expensive gifts if she would renounce the faith. But the bride of Christ possessed in her heart love towards her sublime Bridegroom Christ and would not even consider their offers. Furthermore, since he was extremely wealthy, he brazenly proposed to her: "Akylina, become a Muslim and I will make you my son's bride." Christ's Martyr replied with an immense daring: "You and your son go to perdition." With these words the judge's wrath was kindled. They tied her again as before and flogged her for many hours. When they unfettered her for a third examination, the judge asked her: "Hapless one, are you not embarrassed to be beaten naked in front of so many men?" He said this because from the countless blows her slip was in shreds and she was exposed. The judge continued: "Either you become a Muslim or have your bones shattered before all." In refutation she declared: "And what attraction does your faith have for me to deny my Christ, or what miracle of your religion shall I believe, since you have filthy and indecent lives?" O fearless testimony! A noble reply worthy of heavenly praise, not from a gentle and delicate young girl, but from a valiant giant! All within earshot were disgraced, essentially by the brilliancy of her truthful speech. They were at a loss at how to deal with her. In their rage they scourged the Saint mercilessly a third time, leaving her as dead. The earth was reddened by her blood and her flesh fell in pieces to the ground. Next they untied the Martyr and had her carried by a Christian who was present to her mother's home. Whereupon the mother embraced her daughter who was breathing her last, and asked: "My child, what have you done?" As she came to herself slightly, the Martyr exerted much effort to answer, and opening her eyes, beheld her mother: "O my mother, what else could I do except that which you instructed me? Behold, according to your command I have preserved my confession of faith inviolate." Akylina's mother raised her arms and eyes towards heaven and glorified God. After conversing with her mother, the Martyr surrendered her soul into the hands of God on September 27, 1764 and received the martyr's crown.
St. Akylina's most venerable and sacred relics straightaway emitted a marvelous fragrance so divine that all the streets which they traversed with her martyric relics for burial were filled with scent. At night a heavenly light descended upon and illuminated Akylina's tomb like a shining star. All the Christians who observed this phenomena praised God, to Whom is due glory and power unto endless ages. Amen.
Saint Aquilina’s body was hidden by Christians, to prevent the Turks form desecrating them or burying them in a Muslim cemetary. It wasn’t until 2012, long after Greece had thrown off Ottoman rule, that her relics were discovered in the town of Ossa, in Greece. The next year, they were triumphantly returned to her hometown of Zagliberi. Saint Aquilina is commemorated on September 29 in the Eastern Orthodox church’scalendAr oF saints.
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Let us end this episode with this troparion to Saint Aquilina of Thessalonica:
Your lamb Aquilina calls out to You, O Jesus, in a loud voice: / "I love You, my Bridegroom, and in seeking You I endure suffering. / In baptism I was crucified so that I might reign in You, / and I died so that I might live with You. / Accept me as a pure sacrifice, / for I have offered myself in love." / Through her prayers save our souls, since You are merciful.