Saint Arethas or Aretas was the leader of the ruler of Najran, in South Arabia, during the period of the Christian rule of the kingdom at the beginning of the 6th century AD. JC. According to the Arab Muslim historian, Ibn Ishaq (AD 704), Najran can be considered the place where Christianity took root in South Arabia. Saint Arethas was persecuted and executed during theviolent persecution of Christians led bykingDhu Nuwas,the ruler of the Jewish kingdom of Himyar. Arethas’ martyrdom is recorded in the Acta S. Arethae (also knowns as Martyrium Arethae). According to some ancient records, it’s reported that king Dhu Nuwassummoned Arethas and his 340 followers to renounce their Christian faith if they were to live. Several reasons are given for the persecution. One reason that the king was avenging the burning down of a synagogue by Christians during the Christian era on Najran.
Another explanation is that the king, who had converted to Judaism,was accusing the the Saint of insurrection and of attempting to create his own kingdom in the city. To the king’s menace, Arethas replied categorically thathe would be happy to die for Christ rather than reject his Christian faith and support the brutal rule of the king. The Saint went on to prophesy that the whole region would eventually convert to Christianity, and the violent kingdom would fall. The saint went on to encourage his followers to hold on to their faith. He willed thatall his possessions be given to the new church which would emerge after the destruction of king Dhu Nuwas. Upon the refusal of Saint Arethas and his companions to apostasise, king Dhu Nuwas decreed that the entire group of 340 Christians be beheadednear a stream called Obedianos.
He also ordered that their mortal bodies be abandoned, probably to be devoured by wild animals. The first to be executed was Arethas followed by his faithful companions, who according to some accounts of the martyrdom, anointed themselves with the blood of their leader. The martyrdom took place 24 October. Though a local memorial, for Christians in the Arabian Peninsula, the feast of the Martyrdom of Saint Arethas and his companion can have global implications for Christians. Itencourages Christians to continue praying for Christian communities who many parts of the world continue to suffer persecutions for the sake of Christ.
The Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) reports that the persecution of Christians is on the rise world-wide. Open Doors, a global network that researches on the persecutions of Christians around the world, published in its recent report that more than 4000 were killed because of their faith last year. Open Doors ranks Nigeria 9 on the list of world persecutions of Christians far ahead of Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia…The memorial of the martyrdom of Saint Arethas can also be a warning to Christians living in regions where some religious freedom is apparently practiced to be on the alert. Every measure that infringes on Christian life should be taken seriously. There must exist Christian groups that constantly analyses the impact of laws on Christian living.
• Fr. Basil Soyoye is a Priest of the Société des Missions Africaine in Lyon, France.