In the 6th century, the king of Yemen undertook a violent persecution against Arab Christians under his rule. Since the king, Dhu Nuwas, was a convert to Judaism, he insisted that the Christians convert as well.
According to Catholic Online, the king sent a messenger bearing a pole-mounted cross to the largely Christian city of Najran in southern Arabia, modern-day Saudi Arabia. He issued an ultimatum to the residents: “Whosoever will not show insult to this sign shall be destroyed by fire and sword. Whosoever remains Christian … shall perish by fire and sword.”
Following the people’s refusal to deny their faith, the king ordered a series of massacres. First, 427 priests, deacons, monks, consecrated virgins, and lay Catholics were thrown in pits and burned to death. The city’s governor, Prince Arethas, known to Arab historians as Abdallah Ibn Althamir, was beheaded. A far larger massacre followed, in which over 4,000 of the faithful were slain in various ways. As executions were being carried out, Jewish women among the spectators wept in sympathy.
St. Arethas, who served as the prefect of Najran, and his fellow martyrs eventually would be commemorated by the Church in both East and West, with their feast day set as October 24. Today, the Latin Catholic Church in the Arabian Peninsula is beginning a yearlong jubilee to remember these saints, 1,500 years after their martyrdom.
Pope Francis issued a decree in August to officially open the Jubilee of St. Arethas and his Companions in the Arabian Peninsula, which runs until October 23, 2024.
Bishop Aldo Berardi, Vicar Apostolic of Northern Arabia, said that the Jubilee Year is an opportunity to renew the missionary spirit of Christians on the Arabian peninsula and deepen their faith. Vatican News reports that the Arabian Peninsula is home to approximately 2.5 million Catholics.
“We, in turn, must bear witness to Christ and the Gospel by living a holy and consistent life,” said Bishop Berardi. “We see our continuity with the Christian communities and monasteries that emerged in this region.”
The celebration is a joint endeavor between the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, and the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, led by Bishop Paolo Martinelli.
To foster a deeper connection with the region’s Christian martyrs, a book titled The Unforgotten Martyrs of Arabia, first published in English in 2020, has been translated into several languages.
A relic of St. Arethas is also expected to arrive in Bahrain in November, marking the return of the saint’s remains to the Arabian Peninsula after nearly 14 centuries.