History of the Eastern Orthodox Church under the Ottoman Empire
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By this time Egypt had been under Muslim control for some seven centuries. Jerusalem had been conquered by the Umayyad Muslims in 638, won back by Rome in 1099 under the First Crusade and then finally reconquered by the Ottoman Muslims in 1517.
Under Ottoman rule, the Greek Orthodox Church acquired power as an autonomous millet. The ecumenical patriarch was the religious and administrative ruler of the entire "Greek Orthodox nation" (Ottoman administrative unit), which encompassed all the Eastern Orthodox subjects of the Empire.
The Janissary army corps consisted of young men who were brought to Constantinople as child-slaves (and were often from Christian households) who were converted, trained and later employed by the Sultan (the devshirme system).
Isolation from the West
As a result of the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, and the Fall of Constantinople, the entire Orthodox communion of the Balkans and the Near East became suddenly isolated from the West. The Russian Orthodox Church was the only part of the Orthodox communion which remained outside the control of the Ottoman Empire.
It is, in part, due to this geographical and intellectual confinement that the voice of Eastern Orthodoxy was not heard during the Reformation in sixteenth century Europe. As a result, this important theological debate often seems strange and distorted to the Orthodox; after all, they never took part in it and thus neither Reformation nor Counter-Reformation is part of their theological framework.
Religious rights under the Ottoman Empire
Islam not only recognized Jesus as a great prophet, but tolerated Christians as another People of the Book. As such, the Church was not extinguished nor was its canonical and hierarchical organization completely destroyed. In fact, the Orthodox Church was an accepted institution under the Ottomans, in contrast to Catholicism which was associated with enemy Austria, and actually grew in size during Ottoman rule. This included the building of churches and monasteries.
Its administration continued to function though in lesser degree, no longer being the state religion. One of the first things that Mehmet the Conqueror did was to allow the Church to elect a new patriarch, Gennadius Scholarius. The Hagia Sophia and the Parthenon, which had been Christian churches for nearly a millennium were converted into mosques, yet most other churches, both in Constantinople and elsewhere, remained in Christian hands. They were endowed with civil as well as ecclesiastical power over all Christians in Ottoman territories.
Because Islamic law makes no distinction between nationality and religion, all Christians, regardless of their language or nationality, were considered a single millet, or nation. The patriarch, as the highest ranking hierarch, was thus invested with civil and religious authority and made ethnarch, head of the entire Christian Orthodox population. Practically, this meant that all Orthodox Churches within Ottoman territory were under the control of Constantinople. Thus, the authority and jurisdictional frontiers of the patriarch were enormously enlarged.
Converts to Islam who returned to Orthodoxy were given three chances to reutrn to Islam. If they refused three times, males were put to death as apostates and females were imprisoned for life. Non-Muslims were not allowed to carry weapons or ride horses.
The Orthodox Church found itself subject to the Ottoman system of corruption. The patriarchal throne was frequently sold to the highest bidder, while new patriarchal investiture was accompanied by heavy payment to the government. In order to recoup their losses, patriarchs and bishops taxed the local parishes and their clergy.
Nor was the patriarchal throne ever secure. Few patriarchs between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries died a natural death while in office. The forced abdications, exiles, hangings, drownings, and poisonings of patriarchs are well documented. But if the patriarch's position was precarious so was the hierarchy's. The hanging of patriarch Gregory V from the gate of the patriarchate on Easter Sunday 1821 was accompanied by the execution of two metropolitans and twelve bishops.
Devshirmeh was the system of the collection of young boys from conquered Christian lands by the Ottoman sultans as a form of regular taxation in order to build a loyal slave army (formerly largely composed of war captives) and the class of (military) administrators called the "Janissaries", or other servants such as tellak in hamams.
Fall of the Ottoman Empire in the East
The fall of the Ottoman was precipitated by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox disputed possession of the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. During the early 1850s, the two sides made demands which the Sultan could not possibly satisfy simultaneously. In 1853, the Sultan adjudicated in favour of the French, despite the vehement protestations of the local Orthodox monks.
The ruling Ottoman siding with Rome over the Orthodox provoked out right war (see the Eastern Question). As the Ottoman Empire had been for sometime falling into political, social and economic decay (see the Sick Man of Europe) this conflict ignited the Crimean War in 1850 between Russia and the Ottoman Empire.
Persecution by the Young Turks
During 1894-1923 the Ottoman Empire conducted a policy of genocide against the Christian population living within its extensive territory. The Sultan, Abdul Hamid, issued an official governmental policy of genocide against the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire in 1894. Systematic massacres took place in 1894-1896 when Abdul savagely killed 300,000 Armenians throughout the provinces. In 1909 government troops killed, in the towns of Adana alone, over 20,000 Christian Armenians.
When World War I broke out, the Ottoman Empire was ruled by the "Young Turks" that allied the empire with Germany. In the 20th century, the number of Orthodox Christians, and of Christians in general, in the Anatolian peninsula sharply declined amidst complaints of Ottoman governmental repression of various Eastern and Oriental Orthodox groups.
- page 23 of Bosnia and Herzegovina By Tim Clancy
- page 630 of Eastern Europe: an introduction to the people, lands, and culture ..., Volume 1 By Richard C. Frucht
- page 430 of Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire By Gábor Ágoston, Bruce Alan Masters
- Paroulakis, Peter H. The Greek War of Independence Hellenic International Press 1984
- Altruistic Suicide or Altruistic Martyrdom? Christian Greek orthodox Neomartyrs: A Case Study http://www.myriobiblos.gr/texts/english/constantelos_altrouistic_4.html
- Massacres, Resistance, Protectors: Muslim-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia during World War I, by David Gaunt, 2006
- The Forgotten Genocide: Eastern Christians, the Last Arameans, p.195, by Sébastien de Courtois
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