During the Russian-Turkish war (1711 – 1718) he was a soldier in the imperial army of Peter the Great of Russia. At that time the then invincible Turkish military forces were advancing from victory to victory, spreading fear to all nations. As a soldier, Saint John fought to defend his country, but having being nurtured by the springs of Orthodoxy through his Christian parents, he was appalled by the horror of war, the thousands of young men, women and children, and the elderly, left dead by the passing of the tempest of hostilities and the bellicosity of the enemy.
During the battles for the recapture of Azof on the northern coast of the Black Sea, Saint John, together with many thousands of his compatriots, was taken prisoner. He was first sent to Constantinople (Istanbul), and from there to Prokopi near Caesarea of Cappadocia in Asia Minor, where he was given into the possession of an Aga who maintained a camp of janissaries there.
He is tortured to deny Christ. At Prokopi he was subjected to the scorn and hatred of the Turks for being a “kiafir”, that is an unbeliever of Islam, for which he was tortured.
He was beaten with sticks, kicked and spat on, and a red hot metal bowl was put on his head, burning his hair and scalp. He was then thrown into the mire of a stable and made to live with the animals.
His Response to the Tortures
Saint John endured all his tortures with perseverance and remarkable bravery. His indomitable Christian character, his wonderful inner world, which since his childhood had been devoted to Christ, shone like the sun. To the beatings, insults and kicks of the Turks he responded with the words of Saint Paul:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Rom. 8:35). We can imagine him saying: “I have confidence, faith and love in my Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of the Father, and none of these sufferings will separate me from His love. As a prisoner I will obey your orders, and carry out my duties as a slave, but with regard to my faith in Christ the Saviour, you are not my masters – we ought to obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29). I remember the crown of thorns, the spittings, the buffeting on the face, and that death on the cross, and I am ready to suffer greater and more terrible torments and even that death rather than deny my Christ.”
Thus Saint John accepted the hardships of his life – the tortures, living with the animals in the stable, which, he said, reminded him of the stable in Bethlehem, his spiritual self-discipline: fasts, vigils and prayer- and this acceptance and his way of life so impressed his tormentors that they ceased their brutality, and instead of “kafir” they gave him the epithet of “veli”, which means saint.
One day, at a banquet of the Aga’s officers at Prokopi, Saint John miraculously sent with an angel of the Lord a copper plate of food to the Aga in Mecca where he had gone on a pilgrimage to the tomb of Mohammed. The food was hot when the plate appeared before the Aga, and he ate it. On the Aga’s return to Prokopi three months later, at a similar banquet held in honour of his safe return, the Aga showed the officers the very same plate engraved with his family emblem. This miracle, accomplished by the grace of God, completely quenched the hatred of Saint John’s Turkish masters: their brutality was overcome by spiritual radiance.
The End of his Life
Throughout his harsh and difficult life Saint John had the support and consolation of prayer, vigils, prostrations, and of the Holy Mysteries which he partook in secret from the Turks. Receiving Holy Communion every Saturday was his greatest refreshment and sustenance. On the last day of his life, the 27th of May 1730, he sent for the priest who brought him Holy Communion concealed in a hollowed-out apple which he received for the last time there in the stable. His temporary captivity and sufferings had come to an end:
as soon as he had partaken of the Holy Gifts, the wondrous Saint John passed on to the life of eternal exultation and blessedness.
The priests and Christian notables from Prokopi were given permission by the Turks to take his body for burial. Surrounded by censers and candles, they carried it on their shoulders, accompanied by Turks and Armenians as well as Christians, to a grave in the Christian cemetery. There, with deep devotion, their eyes streaming with tears as if he was their lord and master the body of the former slave and servant was consigned to the mother earth
One night in November of 1733, the old priest who every Saturday had listened to Saint John tell of his sufferings and tortures and who had given him Holy Communion, saw him in a dream. Saint John told the priest that, with God’s grace, his body had remained entire and uncorrupted as it had been when laid in the grave three and a half years before, and that it should be exhumed so that it would remain with them as a blessing of God for evermore. The priest hesitated and then, by the grace of God, a heavenly light, like a pillar of fire, was seen illuminating the Saint’s grave.
The Christians opened up the grave, and what great wonder the body of the Saint was found entire, uncorrupted and redolent with a divine fragrance that it still has today. With spiritual gladness and devotion they took this divine gift of the holy relic in their arms and transferred it to the church where Saint John himself had spent so many nights in prayerful vigil. On that day, over two hundred and fifty years ago, his holy body entered the liturgical life of the Church of Christ.
Τhe Holy Body is burned by Osman Pasha
In one of the domestic conflicts and quarrels between the Sultan of Turkey and the Ibrahim of Egypt, the Sultan’s delegate, Osman Pasha, set fire to the holy relic of Saint John’s body as an act of revenge against the Christians. Amid the flames the Turks saw the body begin to move and, terrified, they abandoned their unholy act and fled. The next day the Christians drug amongst the charcoal and ashes and found the body still entire and although blackened by the smoke and fire it was pliant and fragrant.
The Saint is honoured by All in Cappadocia
As we have seen, Saint John lived chastely and modestly, fasting and praying forgotten virtues nowadays and glorifying God although he was living among people of a different religion and faith, and God responded by honouring and glorifying him both in heaven and on earth. Before the shrine in which his holy body lay in the church in Cappadocia, the crippled walked the blind were given sight, evil spirits vanished and those with fatal diseases were cured, and not only Orthodox but Armenians, Protestants and Turks as well. All were enthralled by his miracles, and when in despair or in distress recourse to the Saint. The Saint’s tongue is silent, but his miracles speak volumes. The holy relic is sleeping but his presence is proclaimed by the miraculous events themselves. His shrine became a great centre of pilgrimage, towering above all others in central Cappadocia.
1922 – The Asia Minor Catastrophe
The collusion of the Great Powers and the terrible mistakes of the Greeks lead to the destruction of Hellenism in Asia Minor by the Turks of Kemal Ataturk. The Greeks, impassioned by their political allegiances and divided into royalist and anti-royalist camps, burn each others’ houses. The politicians in Athens harangued people from the balconies as to whom was most fit to govern the country while young soldiers were slaughtered like lambs in the fateful battle between the Greeks and the Turks entrenched behind the Sakarya river in central Turkey. The Greeks retreated and with their forces split, were driven back to Smyrna which, in August of 1922, went up in flames. Over a million and half people were killed or died as a result of this tragedy.
The Transportation of the Holy Relic
In the aftermath of the Asia Minor catastrophe, a compulsory exchange of Greek and Turkish minorities took place between the two countries, and so, in 1924, the Greeks of Prokopi in Cappadocia, taking with them the holy relic of Saint John, other treasures from their church, and a few personal items still in their possession, set out on the road to expatriation. From Caesaria they travelled to the port of Mersina where they embarked on the ship “Vasilios Destounis”, paid for by the Papadopoulos family whose descendants now live in Elefsina near Athens. They sailed to Chalkis, the capital of the island of Euboea, where they stayed for a year, and in 1925 they were finally settled at the village then called Achmetagha, which they renamed New Prokopi.