A new miracle of St. George?

180941275First things first: His name is not St. George the Dragon Slayer. Most of the time, you will hear him called the Great Martyr St. George the Trophy-bearer, or a variation on that title. The key is that he died as a witness to his faith.

As one of the hymns honoring him says:

You were bound for good deeds, O martyr of Christ: George; by faith you conquered the torturer’s godlessness. You were offered as a sacrifice pleasing to God; thus you received the crown of victory.

Truth be told, the lede on this interesting Associated Press story gets the dragon right up top, but the story does not actually make an inaccurate reference to St. George. So with that stated, let’s move on to the heart of matter — which centers on an icon of the saint in the town of Ramla, Israel:

Christians have been flocking to this dusty Israeli town to see what locals are calling a miracle: streaks of what looks like oil mysteriously dripping down an icon of St. George at a Greek Orthodox church named for the legendary third century dragon slayer.

Worshippers said … that the more than two dozen streaks might represent God’s tears or the Christian rite of baptism. The church priest, Father Nifon, first saw the streaks while preparing for Sunday morning services, they said.

“He kissed all the icons, and when he reached that one, he took down the picture and he cleaned it,” said Aida Abu el-Edam, an English teacher and longtime church member. “After 20 or 25 minutes, he looked again and he saw the oil again and said, ‘This is a miracle.’”

We don’t have time to discuss the sad details behind another question here: What is a Greek Orthodox Church doing in what is clearly a Palestinian community in Israel. This is a case where I think the reporter should have called it an Eastern Orthodox church and left it at that. But there are many reporters, it seems, who think that the whole of Eastern Orthodox Christianity is Greek.

The heart of this story is the phenomenon of myrrh-streaming icons and, frankly, this report does a fine job of handling that subject (while failing to mention the myrrh).

Here is the key passage, starting with another quote from Aida Abu el-Edam:

“It’s a special, holy smell,” she said. “It’s not ordinary, like olive oil. It’s something strange that comes from God.”

The Greek Orthodox patriarch inspected the painting Sunday, el-Edam said, and the church has sent a sample of the oil to a laboratory.

Father Nifon said the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate had asked him not to speak publicly or to answer questions about the streaks, so that believers could draw their own conclusions.

In other words: Let the people pray and let the lab workers do their work. The church will then deal with the results.

The story contains some interesting information about the religious and even political context of these claims about the icon. I could have used a sentence or two about why St. George is so important to Arab Christians, but I understand that length is an issue for wire services.

It’s appropriate, of course, to look for non-miraculous explanations for this phenomenon with icons. That leads us to this wonderful quote, from another voice drawn from the laypeople of this parish:

“People these days, they’ve forgot God and this is a sign to tell them, ‘I’m still here,’ said Edith Fanous, 31, who works for a local trucking company and said she has been attending St. George’s since she was a little girl.

Fanous said she was singing in the church choir when the oil streaks appeared Sunday. She guessed as many as 1,000 visitors had been to the church since then. She dismissed the idea that the streaks could just be paint running on a hot day.

“This icon is 114 years old,” she said. “It passed through so much weather, hot and cold. And now that we have air conditioning in the church it’s started to melt? I don’t think so.”

Ah, the impact of air conditioning on the study of a 114-year-old icon. I sure hope the Associated Press does a follow-up report on this.

IMAGE: An icon on the life of the Great Martyr St. George.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Carl

    Is this really news? My understanding is that this sort of thing happens all the time. (Especially in Palestine, the home of the yearly miracle of the holy fire.) There’s a miraculous myrrh streaming icon here in Honolulu, but I haven’t read any news reports on it, and none turn up on Google News.

    I’m not saying that this shouldn’t be reported, just that it seems strange to report this as “unusually unusual” rather that “unusual in the usual way.”

    On the other hand, it is perhaps a good news hook to hang a closer look at life for Palestinian Christians on.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I agree, kind of.

    I think what caught AP’s attention on this one was the location and the reaction of the church hierarchy.

  • Julia

    What is a Greek Orthodox Church doing in what is clearly a Palestinian community in Israel. This is a case where I think the reporter should have called it an Eastern Orthodox church and left it at that. But there are many reporters, it seems, who think that the whole of Eastern Orthodox Christianity is Greek.

    I have seen references in many places to the “Greeks” and the “Latins” – shorthand for the Church in the East as opposed to the Church in the West because of the predominant literary and liturgical languages used by each. During the Crusades, and I think still in some Muslim areas, the Christians from the West were called “Rum”, meaning Romans. It didn’t mean they were all Italians – even the French were called “Rum”. Similarly, folks in the West tended to refer to Christians in the East as “the Greeks”, knowing full well they were not all ethnically Greek. And I have seen quotes from Orthodox using the term “the Latins” when referring to the Church in the West HQd at Rome.

    Perhaps the reporter had read similar things about the Orthodox in general and mistakenly identified a particular church as Greek when it was really Antiochan or Syrian, etc.

  • Julia

    why St. George is so important to Arab Christians

    Is it really accurate to call indigenous folks who were already Christian before the Islamic Conquest Arab?

    Do they think of themselves as Arabic? Is it because of the current language? Wouldn’t they be Semitic of some kind, but not necessarity Arabic from the peninsula? For instance – the Maronites. Were they related to the conquering Arabs? Were’nt they Syrians? I don’t remember reading about Arabs populating the Levant until the conquest.

    Just asking.

  • D. Burns

    I’d give the reporter a little leway in regards to calling it the “Greek” church. I’m guessing it’s under the Patriarch of Jursulem if the church is in Palistine. To the best of my knowledge, the liturgical language of that church is Greek. Unlike the Churches of Antioch where the liturgical language is Aribic.

  • Jerry N

    Seconding Mr. Burns, I was under the impression that the Patriarchate of Jerusalem was generally led and administered by ethnic Greeks, even though their flock is largely Palestinian Arab. This came up some years ago when the Greek hierarchy sold some property to Israeli Jews, which got the laity furious. There was an issue with their Patriarch on that, though I forgot the details.

  • Carl


    According to Wikipedia, “Rûm” is the Arabic word for “Roman” but it refers to the Byzantine Empire, not the Latin Empire. (Remember that no one called it the Byzantine Empire until after it collapsed. At the time, it was just called the Eastern Roman Empire.) As a result, a lot of Greek Orthodox churches have the word “Rum” in their official Arabic names.

  • Carl

    I’m not sure if my last comment went through or not. Anyway, @Julia, see Wikipedia’s article on “Names of the Greeks.” It explains that the Greeks are called “Rum” in Arabic.

  • http://rjhargrav.wordpress.com/category/journaling/ James

    It’s my general understanding that throughout the Levant “Greek Orthodox” is the term generally used to distinguish those who use the Byzantine (aka Greek) rite from those (the Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, etc Orthodox) who use various rites other than that of Constantinople.

    So the term “Greek” refers not to ethnicity or language but to rite– like “Roman” in “Roman Catholic.” Christians I’ve met from this part of the world– whatever communion they be of– seem to universally use “Greek Orthodox” to refer to Orthodox of the Constantinople rite, no matter their ethnicity or language.

  • Richard

    “Greek Orthodox” is what the Orthodox Christians in the Middle East call themselves. See the titles of these sites:


  • Samn!

    Among the Arab Christians, the Greek (Rum) Orthodox have the strongest identity as Arabs. That is, while the various Syrian groups (Suryanis, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Maronites) often, but not always, see themselves as primarily Syriac in identity, and especially in the diaspora Copts see themselves as primarily Copts, the Greek Orthodox do not see themselves as at all Greek or anything else ethnically other than Arab. After all, Arabic has been their primary liturgical and literary language since the ninth century or earlier– the scholar Sidney Griffith has on occasion used the term “Arab Orthodox” as a designation to explain the medieval term “Melkite”, meaning the ethnically Arab Orthodox of the patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Additionally, the origins of pan-Arab and pan-Syrian nationalism go back to 19th century efforts by Lebanese Greek Orthodox to position themselves politically vis-a-vis both the Maronites, their traditional sectarian rival in Lebanon, and the Sunni majority in Syria, and so there’s a fairly long history of Greek Orthodox in the region associating themselves specifically with Arabism.

  • Julia

    I might be wrong about “Rum” – I guess I remembered what I read in my book on the Crusade incorrectly. Maybe that’s what the Crusaders were called since they were supposedly there on behalf of the Byzantine emperor. As I think I correctly recall, the Islamic rulers required one person in a district to speak on behalf of Christians – so the Muslims lumped them all together.

    To consolidate Carl, James, Richard and Samn!: “Greek” and “Arab” mainly refer to the predominant language used, not the ethnicity.

    In the same vein, it is more appropriate to refer to the “Latin” church where the official language is Latin and not the Roman Catholic Church. Most Catholics are not ethnically Italian nor Italian speakers, but Catholic liturgy was in Latin for nearly 2,000 years regardless of ethinicity. Even though the Mass is now said in the language of the respective people most of the time, the official language of the Catholic Church remains Latin.

    Samn!: I thought the Melkites were only in the region of Lebanon. And I thought the Copts split off early on in the history of Christianity. Their ligurgical language is neither Greek nor Latin. hmmm I’ll have to look up Sidney Griffith’s writings.

  • Julia

    The link Richard provided to the official site of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem offered a surprise. It deals with the issue Jerry N mentioned – the allegedly illegal selling of land to the Israelis. – and the subsequent arrest of the sitting Patriarch and replacing him with someone approved by the local governments.

    Please consider the following scenario, which, to the great shame of all who are involved, is currently playing out in our Holy Patriarchate, where the true Patriarch of Jerusalem is kept under house arrest, while an alliance of corrupt and powerful men support the invalid tenancy of an illegally appointed pseudo-Patriarch.

    Has this been reported anywhere? Is this really the official website of the Patriarchate?

    It involves the always interesting subject of the separation of church and state – from the angle of wanting to protect the church from political and state interference – which is why Vatican City exists.

  • David

    It’s true that the official names of the Antiochian church, and the Orthodox church that operates in Israel, “Palestine”, and Jordan are the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, and the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, respectively.