Wednesday marked the Feast of Saint George, a celebration of the patron saint of England, whose signature red and white cross stands as emblem on the English national flag. In a little known tale of Mideast mishaps, it is the same Cross of St. George that also flies over churches and official buildings across the Palestinian-controlled territories. For George is the singular saint venerated by both Muslims and Christians in "Palestine" and Britain.
George grew up in a typical Christian family in the Holy Land in the Third Century AD. His mother was born in Lydda, the Israeli town of Lod. As a young man, George decided that he wanted to be a Roman soldier. When he later learned that the pagan Emperor Diocletian was responsible for the widespread persecution of Christians in Rome, George left the army in protest.
George's unwillingness to bow to the evil emperor led to imprisonment and torture. He was even dragged through the streets by horses, but refused to abandon his Christian faith. Unable to force him to deny his faith in Christ, George was eventually beheaded by the Romans on April 23, 303 AD.
The reputation of this brave Christian soldier grew, and over a thousand years after his death, George became patron saint of England in 1415 AD. A few centuries earlier, crusader soldiers returning to England from the Holy Land brought back stories of George they had heard from the local Christians. The idea that a Christian soldier was willing to die for his faith inspired the English, and Saint George was dubbed "the protector of soldiers." Crusader soldiers began wearing his signature – the red and white cross – on their chests and backs in the 12th century.
This is the same red and white cross of Saint George that adorns the national flags of England, Australia, New Zealand and the Union Jack.
Many churches in the "West Bank" and Israel bear the name of St George - in Lod, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and in the Galilee, for example. While the Western world celebrates St George's Day on April 23, in the Palestinian areas it falls on May 6, according to the older calendar used by the Eastern Churches.
Although it is originally a local Christian holiday, both Palestinian Christians and Muslims participate.
"It's not only the Christians that appreciate him, the Muslims also feel the power and the miracles of St George," says Father Ananias, a Palestinian Christian priest.
The Christian name George is also one of the most common names in the Palestinian-controlled territories. There are many stories and pictures of St George involving him slaying a dragon. The dragon is believed to represent the devil or evil empire that George resisted by his faith in Christ.
Many Muslim scholars go so far as to suggest that St George is mentioned in the Koran. In Arabic, George is known as al-Khadr, which is also the name of a village near Bethlehem where the festival is celebrated every year. According to these scholars, al-Khadr, identified as St George, served as an assistant to none other than Moses. How curious that St George, believed to be an associate of Moses, who lived over a thousand years earlier, became a patron saint for Palestinian Muslims.