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Religious and Patriotic Martyrdom

Foreigners and warlords build nation states based on selfish interest, though most of the time warlords build nations by accident. Free people established nations based on geography, history, and conquests based on security and viability. In short, states are built on a foundation of values that provide sustainability, confidence, and hope. Since the most valuable element that members of society could offer, for the common good, is their lives, martyrdom is the most binding and the most revered aspects of a nation.

Ironically, though the people who lose their limbs, eyes, or are deformed suffer more, they are not equally revered as a martyr. In some instances, only breathing separates some war casualties from the Martyred.  So, Eritreans remember their martyred heroes with so much respect and emotions.

Martyrs are not just numbers, imaginary characters; they remain part of the society for a long time until time takes its toll and they slowly fade away from the collective memories as names, though they live forever as the “unknown soldiers’ embodied in memorial celebrations, in monuments dedicated to them, and in our national narrations. In time, even their loved ones, their friends and colleagues will all be gone, but until they do, their lives would have been one of pain, suffering and sadness.

What is Martyrdom?

The Eritrean culture of martyrdom is an extension of the religious culture of the Middle East. But it seems Eritreans have become so attached to martyrdom to the extent that the PFDJ[1] rulers want to maintain that culture intact, as if the nation has no other destination but martyrdom. And that has been upgraded to make living martyrs of every adult. Though martyrdom serves patriotism, promotes the sense of service to a nation, and to humanity, in the Eritrean case (and a few other countries) the society led by the ruling regime promote the culture martyrdom more than the respect for life.

Martyrdom has its early origin in the Jewish tradition of Kiddus Hashim ( ቅዱስ ሽም الاسم المقدس), protecting the name of God even by sacrificing one’s life. Under the Roman rule, Jews were killed and attained martyrdom in the thousands for refusing to convert to Christianity. And martyrdom became a way of life under the Roman persecution of Jews. However, after the Romans accepted Christianity, and took charge of the religion, due to their imperialist powers, mainly military might, they persecuted, even Christians of other denominations for not accepting the Roman version of Christianity. And martyrdom continued.

In the Middle ages, Catholicism became the identity of the Roman Empire and until 1806 the Pope was the supreme ruler over most of Europe from his seat at the Vatican. Even if persecuted as apostates and heretics by the Catholic authorities for rejecting a religion, they were recognized as martyrs to their lots. Killing Christians became an entertainment to Roman dignitaries and people died in so many cruel ways, such as being pushed to an arena to wrestle against lions to save their lives. If they were mauled by the wild animals (and mostly they did), they all became martyrs.

Similarly, in Islam, the same trends were duplicated as rulers wanted to expand their imperialist domains, and the society branded many intellectuals, dissenters, and opposition as apostates and heretics. Depending on where one stands, both killers and the killed are still considered martyrs. Sadly, that has been the case since the early days of Islam when fighting between different factions raged. Some of these wars and the brutality that followed were similarly shocking as those practiced in Europe.

In the Middle East, the Iran-Iraq conflicts evolved into the all too common Shia-Sunni schisms. And in the 1980s, hundreds of thousands were killed and wounded in a war that raged for a decade—causalities from both sides are considered martyrs by their respective nations.

Similarly, in modern times, factional fighting–the Irish conflict–between Protestant and Catholics cost the two sides many lives in a conflict that has its origins centuries ago.

In ancient times, a lot of blood was shed between different Christian factions—mainly on religious grounds. The history of Alexandria[2] is replete with bloodshed since it was the main seat of Eastern Christianity. In the conflict, the region saw a lot of bloodshed when the followers of Arius and others were eradicated in Egypt and the Levant.

The Meaning of Martyr

The word martyr was coined from the Greek word “martus”, meaning a witness or testimony. Similarly, though the word Shehid in the Arabic (Kuraan) means a Witness, over time it developed to denote someone who dies for a cause—protecting what is perceived as right and godly, such as one’s faith. Generally, a person who dies protecting his property, his family or himself, is also considered a martyr and so are victims of fire, drowning ,and other calamities.

Since the 19th century, the term gained its modern currency when it was applied to the politics and struggle in any national cause.

Though the religious meaning of a martyr–voluntarily accepting death–was developed out of the confrontation between Roman rulers and the Jews. But according to the newer use of the term, Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the first martyr who was crucified to absolve them of the first sin. However, Saint Stephen (died in 34 AD) is widely considered to be the first martyr in Christianity, when dissidents were burned alive at the stake, crucified, or stoned to death.

Mayan sacrifices…

In ancient times, there were prevalent pagan traditions of self-sacrifice and sacrificing human beings to appease the gods or the evil powers. That tradition was still prevalent during the first two centuries of the Christian era. But until a little over a thousand years ago, the Mayans continued to sacrifice people in what was considered exquisite ceremonies.

To this day, the most remembered story of an attempted human sacrifice is described in the Bible and Kuraan when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son for the sake of God. According to the books, Abraham had his knife ready to slit the throat of his son when an angel descended with a lamb and offered it as a sacrifice in place of his son. However, the Bible and the Kuraan differ whether the son that Abraham was about to sacrifice was Isaac or Ishmael.

It’s widely believed that the concept of martyrdom originated in the Jewish culture and it was carried on by Christianity and Islam. Today, the culture still flourishes in the Middle East and has spread to many parts of the world. And the benign (and passive) form of martyrdom exists among the Evangelists who believe that being a Christian entail being persecuted; they accept is as a natural result of their faith.

Jesus Christ was the first martyr in Christian tradition.

The Roman Catholic church even developed degrees of martyrdom denoted by the colors of Red, blue/green, and White. That was detailed by Pope Gregory 1, who explained the different degrees colors: Red being the highest form of martyrdom, actual sacrifice in blood, while other colors are lesser sacrifices. That could be the inspiration for the colors of the Italian flag (Green, White, and Red), and the French flag (blue, white and red). Hungary, Croatia, the Netherlands, Czech republic, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Serbia, even Russia and England.

Notably, there are many European flags with a cross: UK, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway. Though this is proof that religion is deeply engrained in the psyche of people, the West has come a long way to establish a liberal, prosperous, and confident nations.

In Muslim countries, there are three countries whose flags carry religious inscriptions: Saudi Arabia’s flag (there is no God but Allah), Iran (Allah), Iraq, (God Is Great). However, there are about 14 Muslim (or Muslim majority) countries whose flags carry variations of the crescent and star (s). They are influenced by the flag of the Turkish caliphate when it ruled vast areas of the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. Neither the crescent nor the moon is a sign of Islam.

In China, missionaries were killed by “slow slicing”, cutting pieces of the body until the person dies, and the missionaries who were killed were considered red martyrs. However, until a few centuries ago, Catholic Europe killed other Christians by burning them alive, stoning, and other cruel means.

Famous Martyrs

As mentioned above, Saint Stephen is considered the first martyr of Christianity after 34 AD when he was stoned to death in Jerusalem for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But the most famous Christian martyr is Joan of Arc (Jeanne D’Arc) whose story is taught in many schools around the world. A peasant girl from the France, Jeanne D’Arc became a formidable soldier and fought against the English invaders defending her king. She was caught and burned at the stake when she was only 19.

The first martyr in Islam is believed to be Yasir Bin Amer ASlEnsi, a Yemeni who settled in Mecca and married a slave girl named Sumayyah. Yasir was among the first to follow the prophet of Islam and in the 7th century, the early years of Islam, the pagans of Mecca tortured him and his wife to death. Some historians consider his wife is the first Muslim martyr because she died first.

In explaining Martyrdom, Saint Gregory is quoted as saying, “it is mere rashness to seek death, but it is cowardly to refuse it.” In modern times, Christians “must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”

To this day, Muslims are encouraged to seek martyrdom in defense of their faith, country, family, and property. And the tradition of martyrdom is still alive in the Middle East. Unfortunately, it has given insane outcasts like ISIS and others, an idea that they distorted to wreak havoc around the world.

In Eritrea, Suw’e/Shehid has almost lost its religious connotation and has survived as a national, patriotic feat and value. However, there is no consensus among followers of the Abrahamic religions on the modern-day adaptation, but still, martyrdom is strongly associated nationalism which is the main motive for martyrdom.

Both Christians and Muslims believe that martyrs are assured of a place in heaven—some are prescribed, but most beliefs on the rewards are fantasies incubated in the minds of deprived backward societies.

Finally, though the above is its historical development, undeniably the notion of martyrdom motivates people to fight against injustice and it will thrive as long as people suffer from oppression, illiteracy and depravity. What needs to be tamed is the warped notion perceived by outright killers claiming to be pursuing martyrdom with the sole idea of mythical rewards in the afterlife.

In the Eritrean case, the sacrifices were made in pursuit of lofty ideals: freedom, justice and dignity. That is why Eritreans revere their martyrs without much religious connotation. It’s widely perceived as a selfless act of exposing one’s life to danger so that the rest of people can live in peace, justice, and freedom.

But even in Eritrea, there are damaging consequences of the culture of martyrdom. The notion is so abused its meaning has been disfigured: the perception that Eritreans do not die, they are martyred. It’s commonly (and rationally) believed that a martyr is someone killed in the action of pursing a national goal. But once that person pulls out of the risky fight, retires, or become a driver, gets sick, and dies, he just dies, not martyred. The PFDJ has abused the term so much that it calls every person who dies in its services, even if against the people, a martyr.

In essence, according to the PFDJ, those who die under the service are martyrs while the rest simply die. Worse, those who die struggling against its oppression are not even given the dignity of mentioning their names, or the right to be buried in Eritrea. In short, this emotional blackmail has devaluated the honor of martyrdom which has become an important tool of oppression for the rulers of Eritrea.

[1] Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the only ruling party with Isaias Afwerki as its president since since independence Day, May 24, 1991.

[2] Recommended reading: Azazeel, a book by Yousif Zeidan

About Saleh "Gadi" Johar

Born and raised in Keren, Eritrea, now a US citizen residing in California, Mr. Saleh “Gadi” Johar is founder and publisher of Author of Miriam was Here, Of Kings and Bandits, and Simply Echoes. Saleh is acclaimed for his wealth of experience and knowledge in the history and politics of the Horn of Africa. A prominent public speaker and a researcher specializing on the Horn of Africa, he has given many distinguished lectures and participated in numerous seminars and conferences around the world. Activism was founded by Saleh “Gadi” Johar and is administered by the Awate Team and a group of volunteers who serve as the website’s advisory committee. The mission of is to provide Eritreans and friends of Eritrea with information that is hidden by the Eritrean regime and its surrogates; to provide a platform for information dissemination and opinion sharing; to inspire Eritreans, to embolden them into taking action, and finally, to lay the groundwork for reconciliation whose pillars are the truth. Miriam Was Here This book that was launched on August 16, 2013, is based on true stories; in writing it, Saleh has interviewed dozens of victims and eye-witnesses of Human trafficking, Eritrea, human rights, forced labor.and researched hundreds of pages of materials. The novel describes the ordeal of a nation, its youth, women and parents. It focuses on violation of human rights of the citizens and a country whose youth have become victims of slave labor, human trafficking, hostage taking, and human organ harvesting--all a result of bad governance. The main character of the story is Miriam, a young Eritrean woman; her father Zerom Bahta Hadgembes, a veteran of the struggle who resides in America and her childhood friend Senay who wanted to marry her but ended up being conscripted. Kings and Bandits Saleh “Gadi” Johar tells a powerful story that is never told: that many "child warriors" to whom we are asked to offer sympathies befitting helpless victims and hostages are actually premature adults who have made a conscious decision to stand up against brutality and oppression, and actually deserve our admiration. And that many of those whom we instinctively feel sympathetic towards, like the Ethiopian king Emperor Haile Sellassie, were actually world-class tyrants whose transgressions would normally be cases in the World Court. Simply Echoes A collection of romantic, political observations and travel poems; a reflection of the euphoric years that followed Eritrean Independence in 1991.

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  • Simon Kaleab

    Selam all,

    Usually, the martyrs are the foot soldiers of the cult of political or religious movements. The political or religious Ayatollah will have a bunker or a safe exit route.


    Only in can you find such analysis on a subject that transcends us humans through time and space. Equally, and uniquely, insightful are also are the comments and reactions of readers and the author’s response.

  • Amanuel Hidrat

    Selam Saleh, Hailat, Ismailo,

    Saleh: It is an insightful piece that tries to give a historical account how the abstract religious concept “martyrdom” has evolved and transformed to a politico-revolutionary concept to serve for the ultimate lives given to a political cause. To the surprise of the faithfuls of religious institutions, there is another biblical word “Yikealo” meaning nothing is impossible to God, has introduced in to the politics of EPLF to exemplify their demigod. In that the followers are the the expression and the essence of the Yikaelo. So the religious words and concepts are transformed to serve the tyrants.

    Hailat: I agree with you that “religion” is an institutional abstract belief system for faithfuls. Religion as a “faith” and politics as a “governing system” has a long history of interferences and collisions. It will remain to be so unless societies are cautious and find a clear demarcation between the two to exist and thrive side by side.

    Ismailo: good to see you back with your inputs and wisdom. Your inputs always give us a historical prospects to shape and frame our arguments. However on this one, I expect you to give us more historical prospect to enrich the piece of the author. This is out of respect I have to you.


    • Ismail AA

      Dear Aman and Haile,
      Thank you for the welcome. We complement one another in uplifting the mission of this essential forum.

    • Haile S.

      Selam Emma,

      Good point on ይክኣሎ. You got Ghedlu (ገድሊ) by itself which is the tittle of so many tewahdo church’s books, like in ገድለ ሓዋርያ etc etc.

    • Saleh Johar

      Thanks Emma,
      Yekealo indeed, and it amazes me how some people keep badmouthing religions, pretending to be atheists, when they are worshippers in the PFDJ cult.

    • Nitricc

      there is another biblical word “Yikealo” meaning nothing is impossible to God, has introduced in to the politics of EPLF to exemplify their demigod. In that, his followers are becoming the expression and the essence of Yikaelo, the omnipotent and omnipresent in their lives. So the religious words and concepts are transformed to serve the tyrant in many instances in the Eritrean politics.

      Hi Aman-H; I am just wondering how low this people can go? Whenthe white masters declare “ nothing is impossible” it is all about determination, fortitude and resilience but when their own people use it to overcome a force 20 times greater than them, then it a cult and they are trying to override god’s power. How low can you people go? I bet you with my life if that was said in TPLF and was said by the dead midget, you will be prizing him till the cows come home. At least have some kind of principal. don’t bend like tree with the direction of the wind. YiKalo for ever!!!!

      • Amanuel Hidrat


        Am empty comment devoid of meaningful idea. Did you scribble this comment as argument? No brother. Learn how to debate. What do you mean by “principal “. Can you figure it out for me how you put it in to a sentence in your comment?

  • Haile S.

    Selam Saleh, Ismael, and all,

    Welcome back Ismail, our Bach. I agree with you on our Ludwig just composed another masterpiece.
    My thoughts:
    It is Theoi’s fault. Theois like gifts/sacrifice and martyrdom. It is their bread and butter. Like Atheos wouldn’t exist without Theoi, sacrifice & martyrdom wouldn’t exist without him too! For me the first sacrifice & martyr is Abel, the ‘grandchild’ of God (Theoi). God appreciated Abel’s gifts more than Cain’s, his brother. And Cain was resentful about it, because God never stopped from appreciating Abel’s gifts and depreciating Cain’s gifts. Abel was a herder, Cain a farmer. It can thus be safely concluded that God liked life sacrifice that of sheep and goat more than a bushel of bloodless cereal. At the end, Cain killed his brother Abel, and we can safely assume it was a kind of sacrifice to God by pouring the blood of his brother.
    Now, Saleh had amply elaborated the other connections. Let me just remind you about the communist slogan ‘revolution eats its children’. Revolutions act like Gods and religion and thus love blood. Revolution is devouring us and our children. At the risk of offending you, let me say it bluntly: sacrifice and martyrdom are the origin of religion and we are seeing with our own eyes our living martyrs turning to Gods and creating their own religion. Our living Gods don’t speak, explain or communicate. They DO!! Exactly like God who doesn’t speak, you just communicate with him by praying and Eritrean people are praying, I don’t know to which God, but they are praying because they don’t have administrators, but Gods!!!!

    • Saleh Johar

      Hi Haile,
      I think you stretched it too far 🙂 Do you really think martyrdom is the origin of religion? I think martyrdom explains the essence of life which is full of conflicts–self interest and self preservation, dedication, obedience, etc. But that is as old as human history. The problem I have is two-pronged: 1) ideologies yearning to be religions and their leaders to replace god, and 2) when some crazy people think shedding peoples’ lives is a license to heaven. The two are worse than each other. And if a culture embraces the two, it’s full disaster. I think, Eritreans being destroyed by the former while fortunately being relatively shielded from the latter. The revolutions’ tradition of abusing the term “Martyr” has been bothering me for a long time, but a while ago I heard of a person who was killed in a car accident being identified as a martyr. You can guess why!

      BTW, long time ago I bought a guitar and a friend gave me a tape for a guitar lesson, it was Fur Elise, Ludwig’s famouse tune. I failed and carried the guitar to Cairo and gave it to my brother who was just a child. Guess what, I bet he became one of the best Eritrean guitar players. If you cannot find him on youtube, I will provide a link on the weekend.

      • Haile S.

        Hi Saleh,
        You are right, my missed cartoonist side takes me adrift sometimes. I also agree on the 2-summary you mentioned. I look forward to hearing the guitarist!

        Your mention of ‘for Elise’ reminded me a french song for children, comptines (nursery rhymes) entitled ‘chere Elise’. Such songs are used to teach children on the correct pronunciation of words.

  • Hameed Al-Arabi

    Ahlan Ustaz Saleh Johar,

    I hope Al-Ustaz Saleh to explain the role of this lesson to Eritrean dilemma.


    • Saleh Johar

      Ahlan Ustazna al Kebir,

      Honestly, I am not sure if it is a lesson at all. But the core message is in the last few lines.

      • Hameed Al-Arabi

        Ahlan Al-Ustaz Saleh,

        Do you mean the message of entire article lies on this, “In essence, according to the PFDJ, those who die under the service are martyrs while the rest simply die. Worse, those who die struggling against its oppression are not even given the dignity of mentioning their names, or the right to be buried in Eritrea. In short, this emotional blackmail has devaluated the honor of martyrdom which has become an important tool of oppression for the rulers of Eritrea?”

        As they say preferences make markets thrive.


        • Saleh Johar

          Ahlan Hamid,
          I feel you have something you want to say. Please stop insinuations and say it plainly. Why are you subjecting me to guessing? You know I don’t enjoy insinuations, as the article illustrates 🙂 But if you do not like it, just ignore it like many have been ignoring some of my writings. I just write on the wall hoping the ulli albab will be fine with it 🙂

          • Hameed Al-Arabi

            Ahlan Al-Ustaz Saleh,

            I expect from you a message bigger than this what you have indicated.

            Is questioning a taboo? I think, you fight to inspire and embolden people to dare to question.

            I hope to take it easy and as they say with game spirit.


          • Amanuel Hidrat

            Selam Hamdat,

            If you have something bigger message than his piece, why don’t volunteer to formulate those big ideas in your mind in to an article and grace us as treat

          • Saleh Johar

            Sorry Hamid,
            Trust me. I sensed where this was going— I have done this for too long and skepticism comes with it. But remember I also expected better from instead of almost literally asking me “what’s your point?” And I answered you with the point. I also expected, in my second comment, you would understand that I didn’t understand your message. And now this! Do I have to prove that I do not consider question a taboo? What if a question was not clear and sounded the way it sounded? Aren’t you supposed to clarify instead of asking me about taboo?

            You think the goals you mentioned are what I fight for, you think? I thought you would be sure not doubt.

            At any rate, Hazel kher. Please be more clear, am I wrong in guessing something in the article bothered you ? If I am wrong, I apologize. Otherwise please let’s start anew. Kindly explain your question in unambiguous manner and you know I will answer it to the best of my ability.

  • Ismail AA

    Selam Saleh all all,

    With crystal and incisive insight Saleh has thrown his net of erudition as wide as possible to scan a huge and controversial matter to come out with this educating summary. He has covered this not so simple subject from roots (origin) upwards to the branches (most faiths and mundane based notions of martyr and martyrdom.

    As always, and to speak for myself, he deserves appreciation for this worthy classroom quality contribution. As he has explained, at the core of the notion (precept) rest interests that transform to group or collective causes – religious or temporal. At some stage, the issue gets raised to levels motivated by incentive of salvation for faithful and eternal collective memory that require death by volition.

    Since martyrdom is involve killer-killed relationship, some one’s martyr is another’s villain that deserve death. Incidentally, I happened to encounter a passing chat about martyrdom. One of the speakers, who had affiliation with one of the Islamist groups, claimed that fighters who met martyrdom under the banner of the ELF should count as martyrs. Saleh has also dealt how the current regime abuse the notion of martyrdom.

    • Saleh Johar

      Ahlan Ismail,
      Once I had an argument with a person who challenged me as follows (praphrased):

      “the enemies killed in battle are considered martyrs in the eyes of their folks while you believe only your casualties are martyrs,” He explained, “the reward of a martyr is heaven. So, basically denying the title of a martyr is denying them entry to heaven. What happens if everyone went to heaven? Isn’t heaven wide enough for all? After all, isn’t God who decides who is admits or not?”

      The best answer I could give was, we have this God-given life to preserve and take care of. Agreeing that only God decides what happens in the afterlife, anyone who destroys this life cannot be considered a martyr, but the forces that defend life are pious, selfless, loyal people–and that is what our martyrs did. And if they do not deserve heaven, no one does. To my surprise, he nodded in agreement 🙂

      • Ismail AA

        Hayak Allah SJ,
        You had lickier encounter than mine. You had a softer kind who listened and ended up with a nod of approval. As you have indicated in the article the issue is enormously complex and thoroughyly controversial.

  • Philipos Hailemichael

    ዓሚቚ ን መሃርን ጽሑፍ ሓዉ ሳልሕ

    ንዓይ ከምዝረደኣኒ መሰዋእቲ ብዛዕባ ዝኽፈል ዋጋ ፣ ብምስዓብ ብሰንኪ ዝተኸፍለ ዋጋ ተመጣጣኒ ዉጽኢት ዘዉሕስ መስርሕ ክኸዉን እንከሎ ሰማእትነት ግና ክንዮ ዋጋ ዕዳጋታት ሰጊሩ ኣብ`ቲ ሓደ ካብቶም መሰረታዊ ክዉንነትን ሰብ ዝኾኑ “ምስማዕ” የተኩር ።

    መዝገበ ቃላት ካብ ግእዝ ናብ ትግርይና ከምዝሕብሮ ምንጪ ቃል ሰማእታት ወይ ሰማእት ካብ “ሰምዐ” ከምዝኾነ ይሕብር።

    ሰማእትነት ብዛዕባ ምስማዕ እዩ ፣ እምበኣርከስ ሰማእታት እቶም ትርጉም መዓሙቚ ምስጢር ሂወት ዝሰምዑ ከም ሳዕቤኑ ከኣ ሓንሳእን ንሓዎሩን ህያው ኮይኖም ክነብሩ ዝመረጹ ኮይኑ ይረኣየኒ።

    ሰማእትነት ብዛዕባ ዝሓለፉ ፣ ሓላፊ ፣ ወይ`ውን ጸብጻብ ጌርና ክንርድኦ ኣይግባእን ኢለ ይሓስብ።

    ንዓይ መስዋእትነት (ስዉኣት) ን ሰማእትን (ሰማእት) ገዚፍ ፍልልይ ዘሎዋም ኮይኑ ይረኣየኒ ፣ ብሕልፊ እኳ ናይ ክልቲኦም ጉዳያት ምስ ሃይማኖታውን ታሪኻዊን ኣተሓሒዝካ ክትገልጾም ምስ እንፍትን ።

    ሰማዒት ልቢ ተሃልወና!

    ሓዉኻ ፊሊጶስ ሃይለሚካኤል

    • Saleh Johar

      Hi Philipos,
      I am not sure why I didn’t see your comment until now. Sorry dear.

      Thank you for the info. I believe terms are very important and should be use properly. Sometimes, even synonyms do not convey the same idea. But the issues of martyrdom is something we need to learn more about because it has come to define us as a nation.

      Thank you