St. George the Palestinian
Happy St. George's Day to all my English friends (and a happy Will Shakespeare Day to all my English literature loving friends).
Poor old St. George has been an easy target for mockery over the years. Over the years he has been progressively relegated from the Vatican's Premier League of Saints, down to the hagiographic equivalent of the Isthmian League, and the most famous story about him is the patently fictional one about him killing a dragon (although many of the more famous stories about St. Patrick are patently fictional too)... Indeed, when I was younger it was suggested that there were suspicions that he was as fictional as the dragon he slew. But there has been a recent resurgence of interest in George, although whilst many of those who drape themselves in the flag named after him see him as the champion of all things English (whatever that means), it seems as if he might better be described as the epitome of multi-culturalism.
Perhaps that is why England shares him with Lithuania, Portugal, Germany, Greece, Georgia and Palestine. It is suggested that he was actually born of a Palestinian mother and a Roman army officer in Turkey, which may explain why Istanbul also sees him as its patron saint, although he was born in Cappodocia in the east of the country. Although there is confusion as to the names of his parents, most agree that they were both Christians and that George was brought up in the Christian faith. If he ever came to England, it would have been as part of the occupying Roman army into which he is thought to have followed his father, rising to become a fairly high-ranking officer, but we have no records to suggest that he did come to these islands (although the fact that Jesus undoubtedly didn't come here either doesn't stop the lusty singing of Blake's "Jerusalem" at every possible jingoistic event). Actually we don't have records of any of his military actions, be they against fictional dragons or other enemies of the empire, but the legends suggest that he ultimately died, not in service of the empire, but in one of the last great Roman persecutions of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian. George seemingly refused to abandon his religion and bow to Diocletian (some suggest that this was despite Diocletian's personal patronage of George in memory of his late father, and direct attempts by the Emperor to persuade him to back down). As a result he was imprisoned, tortured, and finally beheaded at Nicomedia, on April 23, 303AD, but not before he had given his property to the poor and freed his slaves. His body was returned to Lydda in Palestine for burial, where Christians soon came to honour him as a martyr, although it wasn't until 494AD that George was formally recognised as a saint.
In the 7th century he was mentioned among the martyrs by Bede, in England, but the earliest church in England dedicated to him is one at Fordington, Dorset, that is mentioned in the annals of Alfred the Great. The first time a holy day in his honour was celebrated in England was sanctioned by an episcopal synod in Oxford in 1222. But by that time the St. George's flag, a red cross on a white field, had been adopted by England, initially, in 1190 for their ships, and subsequently their crusading troops. If truth be told it was originally not out of veneration of St. George himself, but to benefit from the protection of the Genoese fleet, whose home city also had George as its patron. Apparently the English paid an annual tribute to the Doge of Genoa for this privilege. But wearing the cross of St. George gave the English crusaders an interest in this soldier saint, although they weren't the only ones to adopt him as their own at this time. A military Order of St. George was established in Aragon, and a number of later Papal chivalric orders also took St. George as their patron. Indeed I myself, for reasons too complicated to go into here, am a bronze medal benemerenti of the Sacred Constantinian Military Order of St. George, a papal order from the ruritanian-sounding Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. But anyway, returning English crusaders brought stories about this soldier saint home with them, and eventually he was acknowledged as England's patron saint by the 14th century.
But while St. George became popular with crusaders, and is currently claimed as the patron saint of vocal opponents of Islam, the ironic thing is that, he is recognised and indeed venerated by Muslims, as well as Christians throughout the Middle East, at times being partially identified with the mystical figure of Al-Khidr (who may also be equated with the Green Knight in Arthurian legend, but let's not confuse things further). Indeed Muslim legends insist that he killed his dragon near the sea in Beirut (another city that venerates him as patron) and Muslim women used to visit his shrine there to pray to him. There was also for some time a tradition of Christians and Muslim both going to an Eastern Orthodox convent and shrine of St. George at Beith Jala near Bethlehem in the Occupied Territories. Jews also attended the same the site believing that the prophet Elijah was buried there. The Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, are said to believe that St. George can restore mad people to their senses; and to say a person has been sent to St. George's, is equivalent to saying he has been sent to a madhouse.
And as such St. George represents the complexity of the Middle East in general and Palestine in particular. He was a Palestinian Christian, and to this day there are still around one hundred thousand Palestinian Christians in Gaza and the West Bank who live and work and suffer and die side by side there. But with the increasing polarisation between the supposed Christian west and Islamic east, many of these indigenous relationships are breaking down. There are fears among Syrian Christians that if the rebels succeed in ousting the Baathists there as they were ousted in Iraq then they will suffer the same fate of their Iraq Christian neighbours, being persecuted by Islamic extremists, who regard even indigenous Christians as possible fifth-columnists for the great Satan, America and the Christian west (in much the same way that Catholics were viewed in England in the wake of the reformation). Hence Christian communities that pre-date and survived the toxic aftermath of the Crusades are only now threatened with annihilation.
Will this be helped by people swathed in the flag of St. George, talking about this being a Christian country, whilst spewing racism that should be alien to a follower of Jesus? I doubt it, and it certainly isn't in tune with the memory of St. George.
Actually part of the reason that the Emperor Diocletian acted so viciously against the Christians of his day was that he saw their gospel of love as one that dangerously transcended national and cultural boundaries challenging the authority and power of the state. George died rather than bow the knee to that vision of a state that tells people how and who they should worship.
And, returning to that most famous story of St. George, if there is one dragon that needs slain in this day in age it is the two-headed dragon of spiritualised racism and nationalism dressed up in a St. George's flag... or indeed in any flag.