Slaying the dragons of religious and racial intolerance

By Giles Fraser
April 23, 2007

Crusaders returning from the Holy Land brought back with them fantastic tales of a warrior saint who suddenly appeared at the sieges of Jerusalem and Antioch on a white charger. During the course of the middle ages, he became famous, as one writer put it, 'for dragon maintenance and virgin reclamation' - though he is now more likely to be celebrated on the football terraces and sometimes associated with the ideology of racist thugs. Little wonder many of us are just a bit embarrassed by England's patron saint, whose feast day is today.

But several years ago, on a visit to the West Bank, I discovered a very different St George. A few miles east of Bethlehem, close by the Israeli separation barrier, is the Palestinian village of Al Khadir. Al Khadir, I discovered, is the Arabic name for St George and is widely honoured throughout the Muslim world. My guide ushered me through a courtyard and into the dimly lit Orthodox Church of St George. Did I know that George was a Palestinian, he asked?

Before the tensions of recent years, when travel was easier, Muslims and Christians would come together from miles around to make pilgrimage to Al Khadir. The village streets would be packed, lamb would be barbecued in the churchyard, and Christians and Muslims would sit and eat together.

Why did I never learn about this St George? I went to boarding school in a small market town some miles outside Leicester, where we are today. We wore black uniforms in mourning for the death of Queen Victoria and sang about England's green and pleasant land in chapel. I would often escape school and hitch a lift into Leicester itself.

Here was another world, altogether more magical and intriguing. Here was bustle and colour, languages that I didn't understand and people from places I'd never heard of. To a young boy, it suggested a world so much bigger than the one I was learning about in the classroom, a world of so many possibilities and with so much to wonder at.

St George, as it turns out, is the patron saint of precisely this sort of cultural and ethnic diversity. After all, he is the patron saint of Genoa, Georgia, Catalonia, Armenia, and he originated either from Palestine or Turkey.

The irony is that whilst many racists claim St George as the standard bearer of Anglo-Saxon superiority, the only thing that can be said with absolute certainty about St George is that he was not born in this country and that his legend emigrated here from the middle-east.

The sort of hospitality I found at Al Khadir suggests a St George that welcomes those of different creeds and colour, a St George that can help us to slay the dragons of racial superiority and religious intolerance. Now that's the St George we need today.

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