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Massacre of Yemen’s Christians

19th-century Yeminis in traditional garb.

YEMEN TODAY is one of the least Christian countries in the world, but that was not the case in the sixth century. At that time, about one third of its inhabitants were Christians with close ties to Christian Abyssinia (Ethiopia). The Abyssinians invaded Yemen and placed a Christian king on its throne. Yemen also had a large Jewish population. 

Yusuf As’ar, successor of the king placed by the Abyssinians, had sided with the Christians earlier but soon revealed himself as a Jew. Because he wore a ponytail, he was known by names which refer to his hair: Dhu Nuwas, Dzu Nuwas, Dounaas, or Masruq. Seeking to throw the Abyssinians out of the country, Dhu Nuwas attacked their garrison at Zafar and burned the church there along with other Christian churches. 

Dhu Nuwas next attacked the northern Yemenese city of Najran (now in Saudi Arabia) which was strongly Christian. The Christians resisted with desperate valor, appealing for help to Byzantium and the Persian Christians. When Dhu Nuwas found he could not capture the city by direct assault, he swore full amnesty to all who would surrender. The Christians knew they could not hold out much longer. Against the advice of their leader Arethas, they accepted the terms. Dhu Nuwas massacred them all according to a Syrian bishop, Simeon of Beth Arsham, who traveled to Narjan to report the story,

The Jews amassed all the martyr’s bones and brought them into the church where they heaped them up. They then brought in the priests, deacons, subdeacons, readers, and sons and daughters of the covenant...they filled the church from wall to wall, some 2,000 persons according to the men who came from Najran; then they piled wood all round the outside of the church and set light to it, thus burning the church with everyone inside it. 

On this day, 25 November 523, Dhu Nuwas also killed Arethas and three hundred and forty of his followers. Greek and Latin churches quickly added them to martyr lists. 

Dhu Nuwas was not done. For a week he raged through the area, martyring thousands of Christians, who suffered terrible tortures rather than renounce Christ. According to accounts written within a century of the events, Dhu Nuwas dug deep pits and filled them with fire. Anyone who refused to become a Jew was flung in. All gave testimonies similar to some women of Narjan, who replied: “God forbid that we should deny our Lord and our God, Jesus Christ. For He is God and the Maker of all things, and He has saved us from eternal death.” 

When Roman emperor Justin I learned of the massacres, he asked Kaleb, Abyssinia's Christian king, to intervene. Kaleb crushed Dhu Nuwas, re-establishing a Christian kingdom in Yemen. The Christians, however, were much weaker now, and did not survive the rise of Islam.

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