Christians in the Osmanic Empire

Wlodzimierz Redzioch

In the 7th century the caliphates were created in the Near East (a caliphate is a kind of political-social organization of the Muslim society; Muslim state with a caliph as its head): first Umayyad dynasty in Damascus as its capital (661-750), then the caliphate of Abbasids with its centre in Baghdad (750-1258). In Asia Minor there was the Seljuks and later the Ottoman Empire. Its troops conquered Constantinople, wonderful capital of the Byzantine Empire, in 1453. The Turks renamed it to Istanbul and made it the capital of their empire. Thus the Islamic empire conquered the lands where the Church originated in the first centuries after Christ's birth: three out of four ancient Patriarchates (Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria), together with their numerous believers were under the Muslim rules. In that situation the problem of the existence of the Christian communities within the framework of the so-called Umma (followers of Islam define themselves as 'Umma' - Community of true believers) was raised.
Islam is not only a religion but also a social-political system. And that's why, it defines the status of Christians in the Islamic society. It was Muhammad that established the rules of co-existence between Muslims, Christians and Jews living on the Arab Peninsula when he organised the first Muslim communities (Islam regards Christianity and Judaism as the so-called religions of the Book). The status of Christians was described as 'dimmi', which means 'protected people'. In fact, they were tolerated, were free to practice their religion and keep their traditions. However, they had a lower social and legal position, and they had to pay a special tax.
The situation of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, in spite of the above-mentioned legal rules, was satisfactory because of the implemented millet system (literally the word means 'nation'). Actually, various denominations were awarded a special status of 'nation-community'. Naturally, particular millets did not identify themselves with any territory but with the religion and culture of their inhabitants. At first there were four millets: Muslim, Hebrew, Greek Orthodox and Armenian. The highest religious authority of the given group represented the millet before the sultan.
The tolerance of the sultans and close Christians' contacts with Europe made the Christian communities grow dynamically, not only on the religious and cultural levels but also on the social and economic ones. Thanks to the modern schools the Christians were the best-educated social group in the empire. But the liberal European ideas that spread in that environment caused that in the 19th century the millet of the Eastern Catholics and their specific religious-cultural situation was recognised. The result of the reforms was the legal recognition of equality of all communities. At the beginning of the 20th century the Christians constituted considerable part of the society (24%). Their demographic situation gradually got worse after the government of the so-called Young Turks seized power, commencing with the massacre of the Armenian Christians in the years 1915-16 (it is estimated that about 1.5 million Armenians were killed for various reasons).

"Niedziela" 49/2006

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: