Tested in a Fiery Furnace of Affliction
AS TOLD BY PERICLES YANNOURIS
The dampness of the musty cell chilled my bones. As I sat there alone, with only a thin blanket over me, I could still see the stone-cold look on my young wife’s face as militiamen dragged me from my house two days earlier, leaving behind her and our two sick babies. Later, my wife, who did not share my beliefs, sent me a parcel and a note that said: “I am sending you these cakes, and I hope that you get as sick as your children.” Would I ever return alive to see my family?
THAT was just one episode in a long and arduous fight for the Christian faith, a struggle that involved family opposition, community ostracism, legal battles, and fierce persecution. But how and why did I, a quiet and God-fearing individual, end up in that miserable place? Please allow me to explain.
A Poor Boy With a Lofty Dream
When I was born in 1909 in Stavromeno, Crete, the country was struggling with war, poverty, and famine. Later, my four younger siblings and I barely escaped the onslaught of the Spanish flu. I remember that our parents shut us in our house for weeks at a time so that we would not catch the flu.
Father, a poor farmer, was a deeply religious but open-minded man. Having lived in France and Madagascar, he had been exposed to progressive ideas about religion. Still, our family remained loyal to the Greek Orthodox Church, attending Mass every Sunday and opening our home for the local bishop to stay during his annual visit. I was a choirboy, and my life’s dream was to become a priest.
In 1929, I joined the police force. I was on duty in Thessalonica, in northern Greece, when Father died. Seeking solace and spiritual enlightenment, I secured a transfer to the police force of Mount Athos, a nearby monastic community revered by Orthodox Christians as the “holy mountain.”* I served there for four years and observed monastic life at close quarters. Instead of being drawn closer to God, I was appalled by the monks’ blatant immorality and corruption. I was disgusted when an archimandrite whom I had respected made immoral advances toward me. Despite such disillusionment, I still sincerely wanted to serve God and to become a priest. I even donned a priest’s robe and had a photograph taken as a keepsake. Eventually, I moved back to Crete.
“He’s a Devil!”
In 1942, I married a lovely girl, Frosini, who came from a respected family. Marriage reinforced my decision to become a priest, as my in-laws were deeply religious.* I was determined to go to Athens to study at a seminary. In late 1943, I arrived at Iráklion harbor, Crete, but did not leave for Athens. That might have been because, in the meantime, I had found a different source of spiritual refreshment. What had happened?
For some years, Emmanuel Lionoudakis, an energetic young preacher associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses, had been teaching eye-opening Bible truths all over Crete.* Some people were attracted by the clear understanding of God’s Word offered by the Witnesses and abandoned false religion. In the nearby city of Sitía, a group of enthusiastic Witnesses was organized. This bothered the local bishop, who—having lived in the United States—knew firsthand how effective Jehovah’s Witnesses could be as preachers. He was determined to stamp out this “heresy” in his domain. At his instigation, the police regularly dragged the Witnesses to jail and before the courts on a variety of false allegations.
One of these Witnesses tried to explain Bible truth to me, but he surmised that I was not interested. He therefore sent a more experienced minister to speak to me. My brusque response evidently made the second Witness return to the little group and report: “It’s impossible for Pericles to become a Witness. He’s a devil!”
First Taste of Opposition
I am glad that God did not view me in that way. In February 1945 my brother Demosthenes, who was convinced that Jehovah’s Witnesses taught the truth, gave me the booklet Comfort All That Mourn.* Its contents impressed me. We immediately stopped attending the Orthodox Church, joined the small group at Sitía, and witnessed to our siblings about our newfound faith. All of them accepted the Bible’s truth. As expected, my decision to abandon false religion brought ostracism and hostility from my wife and her family. For a time my father-in-law refused even to speak to me. At home, there were disagreements and continuous tension. Despite this, on May 21, 1945, Demosthenes and I were baptized by Brother Minos Kokkinakis.*
At last I was able to realize my dream and serve as a genuine minister of God! I still remember my first day in the house-to-house ministry. With 35 booklets in my bag, I went alone by bus to a village. Timidly, I started going from house to house. The farther I went, the more courageous I became. When an irate priest arrived, I was able to stand up to him courageously, ignoring his persistent demand that I accompany him to the police station. I told him that I would leave only when I had visited the whole village, and that was exactly what I did. I was so happy that I did not even wait for the bus to come but walked the ten miles [15 kilometers] back home.
In the Hands of Ruthless Thugs
In September 1945, I was given added responsibilities in our newly formed congregation in Sitía. Soon civil war broke out in Greece. Partisan groups turned on one another with savage hatred. Taking advantage of the situation, the bishop urged a local guerrilla group to get rid of the Witnesses by any means they saw fit. (John 16:2) As the guerrilla band headed to our village by bus, a friendly lady on board overheard their plans to carry out their “God-ordained” deed, and she warned us. We hid ourselves, and one of our relatives intervened in our behalf. Our lives were spared.
This set the stage for more affliction to come. Beatings and intimidation became the order of the day. Our opposers tried to force us to go back to church, to christen our children, and to make the sign of the cross. On one occasion, they beat my brother until they thought he was dead. It pained me to see my two sisters having their clothes torn and then being beaten. During that period, the church forcibly christened eight children of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In 1949 my mother died. The priest came after us again, accusing us of not complying with the legal requirements for the funeral permit. I was tried in the court and acquitted. This gave a great witness, since Jehovah’s name was heard during the opening remarks of the case. The only means left to our enemies to “bring us to our senses” was to arrest us and send us into exile. This they did in April 1949.
Into a Fiery Furnace
I was one of three brothers who were arrested. My wife did not even come to see me at the local police station. Our first stop was a prison in Iráklion. As described at the outset, I was lonely and dejected. I had left behind a young wife who did not share my beliefs and two infants. I prayed fervently to Jehovah for help. God’s words as recorded at Hebrews 13:5 came to mind: “I will by no means leave you nor by any means forsake you.” I realized the wisdom of putting my implicit trust in Jehovah.—Proverbs 3:5.
We learned that we were going to be exiled to Makrónisos, a barren island off the coast of Attica, Greece. Mere mention of Makrónisos was enough to fill anyone with terror because the prison camp there was associated with torture and slave labor. On the way to prison, we stopped at Piraeus. Though still in handcuffs, we were encouraged when some of our fellow believers came onto the boat and embraced us.—Acts 28:14, 15.
Life in Makrónisos was a nightmare. The soldiers mistreated the inmates from morning till night. Many non-Witness prisoners lost their sanity, others died, and a great number were left physically disabled. During the night, we heard the cries and groanings of those being tortured. My thin blanket provided little warmth during the cold nights.
Gradually, Jehovah’s Witnesses became well-known in the camp because the name was mentioned during roll call every morning. Thus, we had many opportunities to give a witness. I even had the privilege of baptizing a political prisoner who had progressed to the point of dedicating his life to Jehovah.
During my exile, I kept writing to my dear wife without ever receiving a reply from her. This did not stop me from writing to her in tenderness, offering comfort, assuring her that this was just a temporary setback and that we would be happy again.
Meanwhile, our numbers swelled as more brothers arrived. Working in the office, I struck up an acquaintance with the commanding colonel of the camp. Since he respected the Witnesses, I mustered up the courage to ask him if we could receive some Bible literature from our office in Athens. “That is impossible,” he said, “but why don’t your people in Athens pack it in your baggage, write my name on it, and send it to me?” I stood there dumbfounded! A few days later as we were unloading an incoming boat, a policeman saluted the colonel and informed him: “Sir, your baggage has arrived.” “What baggage?” he replied. I just happened to be nearby and to overhear the conversation, so I whispered to him: “It’s probably ours, which was sent in your name, as you ordered.” That was one of the ways Jehovah made sure that we were fed spiritually.
An Unexpected Blessing—Then More Affliction
At the end of 1950, I was discharged. I returned home—sickly, pale, emaciated, and unsure about the reception I would get. How happy I was to see my wife and children again! Better still, I was surprised to find that Frosini’s hostility had diminished. Those letters from prison had proved effective. Frosini had been touched by my endurance and persistence. Shortly afterward, I had a long, conciliatory discussion with her. She accepted a Bible study and developed faith in Jehovah and his promises. One of the happiest days of my life was in 1952 when I baptized her as a dedicated servant of Jehovah!
In 1955 we launched a campaign to distribute to every priest a copy of the booklet Christendom or Christianity—Which One Is “the Light of the World”? I was arrested and brought to trial, along with a number of fellow Witnesses. There were so many cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses that the court had to hold a special session to hear all of them. On that day, the whole legal establishment of the province was present, and the courtroom was jam-packed with priests. The bishop paced up and down the aisles. One of the priests had filed a complaint of proselytism against me. The judge asked him: “Is your faith so weak that you could be converted by reading a brochure?” This left the priest speechless. I was acquitted, but some brothers were sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.
In the years that followed, we were arrested repeatedly, and the court cases multiplied. Handling the trials kept our lawyers on the run constantly. I was taken to court a total of 17 times. Despite the opposition, we were regular in our preaching activity. We happily accepted this challenge, and the fiery trials refined our faith.—James 1:2, 3.
New Privileges and Challenges
In 1957 we moved to Athens. Soon I was appointed to serve in a newly formed congregation. The wholehearted support of my wife allowed us to keep our life simple and our priorities focused on spiritual activities. Thus we were able to devote most of our time to the preaching work. Over the years, we were asked to move to various congregations where there was a need.
In 1963 my son turned 21 and had to report for conscription. Because of their neutral stand, all conscripted Witnesses suffered beatings, mockings, and humiliations. That was also the experience of my son. So I gave him my blanket from Makrónisos to encourage him in a symbolic way to follow the example of former integrity keepers. The brothers who were called up were court-martialed and usually received a sentence of from two to four years. Upon release they were called up and sentenced again. As a religious minister, I was able to visit various prisons and had limited contact with my son and other faithful Witnesses. My son was kept in prison for more than six years.
Jehovah Carried Us Through
After religious freedom was restored in Greece, I had the privilege of serving as a temporary special pioneer on the island of Rhodes. Then in 1986 a need arose in Sitía, Crete, where I had started my Christian career. I was delighted to accept this assignment to serve again with dear fellow believers whom I had known since my youth.
As the patriarch of my family, I am happy to see a total of almost 70 relatives serving Jehovah loyally. And the number continues to grow. Some have served as elders, ministerial servants, pioneers, Bethelites, and traveling overseers. For more than 58 years, my faith has been tested in a fiery furnace of affliction. I am now 93 years old, and as I look back, I have no regrets about serving God. He has given me the strength to respond to his loving invitation: “My son, do give your heart to me, and may those eyes of yours take pleasure in my own ways.”—Proverbs 23:26.
Priests of the Greek Orthodox Church are permitted to marry.
For the life story of Emmanuel Lionoudakis, see The Watchtower, September 1, 1999, pages 25-9.
Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses but now out of print.
For a legal victory involving Minos Kokkinakis, see The Watchtower, September 1, 1993, pages 27-31.
[Box on page 27]
Makróniso—An Island of Terror
For ten years, from 1947 to 1957, the arid and desolate island of Makrónisos played host to more than 100,000 prisoners. Among these were scores of faithful Witnesses who were sent there because of their Christian neutrality. The instigators of their banishment were usually Greek Orthodox clergymen who falsely accused the Witnesses of being Communists.
Regarding the process of “reform” used in Makrónisos, the Greek encyclopedia Papyros Larousse Britannica observes: “The methods of cruel torture, . . . the living conditions, which are unacceptable for a civilized nation, and the guards’ degrading behavior toward inmates . . . are a disgrace to the history of Greece.”
Some Witnesses were told that they would never be released unless they renounced their religious beliefs. Nonetheless, the integrity of the Witnesses remained unbroken. What is more, some political prisoners came to embrace Bible truth as a result of their contact with the Witnesses.
[Picture on page 27]
Minos Kokkinakis (third from right) and me (fourth from left) on the penal island of Makrónisos
[Picture on page 29]
Working with a fellow Witness in Sitía, Crete, where I served in my youth