Early Libyan Martyrs

Libya flag

In light of recent events in Libya, The Sydney based St Shenouda Monastery thought it would be appropriate to dedicate their March newsletter to the history of Christianity in Libya. Historically Libya has contributed to the world a great deal of saints, monks and Martyrs most of which are very unknown. The church of Egypt in particular has a close relation to the Libyan Christianity as St Mark, the founder of the Coptic Church, himself was born in Libya. We have republished an article from the Monastery’s special March edition here.

Early Libyan Martyrs

Confessors prepared to die for their convictions can hardly be ignored, many have died, most of their names remain quite unfamiliar Listen: Januaria, Generosa, Vestia, Donata and Secunda Note that all these were women. These five were among the earliest African martyrs in AD 180. Other women who followed them are Perpetua, with a child in her arms in prison before she died, and Felicitas, who was eight months pregnant.

We find them standing before an imperial judge in AD 203 in a lethal court trial whose proceedings have been shockingly recorded. Both chose faithful death in preference to a forced denial of the truth.
Therewere many other martyrs, both men and women, whose names are largely unknown: Mina, Lucius, Theodorus, Cyrilla and Helladius.

The last of these was burned to death in a furnace in Libya. These names do not spring quickly off the tongue, but their African blood was shed on their native continent. They are all African saints just as surely as those who are better known, such as Cyprian, Leonides and Peter of Alexandria. Then there is Wasilla. The tiny town in Alaska is named after the early Christian martyr who died in Libya. Wasilla is the Russian name for Basilides. Libyan tradition recalls that it was by a lake near Selena, Libya, near Al Bayda, that St George slew the dragon.

There are the Vestiges of a huge monolithic church named for St George is remembered throughout Western history in the names of British kings and thousands of boys speaking a hundred languages, and hundreds of paintings of a knight on a horse with a spear through a monster But no one thinks of him as Libyan The dragon yet to be slain is a crushed memory: No one remembers the place of George’s victory.
Traditional African religion cares deeply about ancestry But the believer’s ancestry of Saints George and Wasilla has been forgotten. Why did Libyans spill blood for the One who was the way, the truth and the life? The short political answer is colonialism, even as early as the second century AD. The deeper religious answer is truth-telling in the context of endemic idolatry.

The Saint Forgotten

African young people need a more accessible way of understanding the part played by these early African Christians based on their faith, tenacity and in some cases their remarkable intellectual intensity. That is why this story awaits retelling. The real histories of Libyan saints are far more dramatic than anything rhetoric or romanticism might add to them.
Christian scholars do well to leave it to the Muslim scholars to tell the story of early Islam in Libyan Africa. My modest task is to tell the story of Christianity in pre-Islamic Libya Since it is accessible to historical inquiry, it does not require a particular hue of skin to tell it.

The story of Libyan Christianity provides a unique occasion to learn expressly about the faith once for all delivered to the saints of the Maghreb, and especially to the ancient saints of Libya.

(From: Thomas C. Oden, “Early Libyan Christianity”)

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