Ottoman rule and Eastern Christianity

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For over 400 years, the Church under Islamic rule in the Ottoman Empire experienced a “dark age”. All Church decisions and appointments had to be approved by the Sultan, Church administration became corrupt, and her faithful suffered from frequent pogroms. Yet the Church never ceased to exist as the Church.

State Control

  • Turks invaded and conquered Constantinople on May 29, 1453 under the leadership of Mohamed II. The invasion brought the end of Byzantium, crushing the prestige of the Christian East.
  • Shortly after his victory Mohammed invited the Greeks to elect their own patriarch. Gennadius Scholarius was chosen. He had participated in the Council of Florence, initially as a supporter of union, but Mark of Ephesus brought him to see the errors of the Council and he began a vehement opponent of union. He became a historical figure for his theological works and was recognized as a good leader in a difficult time.
  • Initially other than paying a head tax to the Sultan the Orthodox were left to their own business. In fact, the Orthodox Patriarch enjoyed an historically unparalleled amount of power as milet pasha. The Muslims did not much distinguish between Church and State and therefore in recognizing the Patriarch as the head of the Church also recognized him as head of the Christians in a political sense as well. Even in the glory days of the Empire the patriarch did not enjoy this kind of position. Michael Celarius may have been close.
  • The Church hierarchy was given the right to civil administration over their Christian population. The bishops, under the patriarch judged Christians according to Greek laws, rather than Islamic ones. All sentences were imposed by the Turkish authorities. They were allowed their own schools and basically became a state within a state.

Corrupt Administration

  • Political decline shortly settle in to the Ottoman Empire. Corruption became the rule. The sultans fleeced their pashas, who in turn fleeced their faithful. These were desperate times and there was no one to listen to the complaints of the Christian, no one within the territories and no one without.
  • Even the rights of the patriarch as milet pasha were reduced to nothing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He was left the “right” of being held responsible for the Christians. Persecutions and martyrdom were becoming prevalent. All of Europe feared the Ottomans and Russia alone came to their aid, but this only worsened their position and infuriated their occupiers.

Pogroms and Mayhem

  • The situation grew much worse, as national awareness and hope for freedom grew in the captive Christians. The Greeks throughout Turkey paid in blood for the Greek uprising of 1821 and Patriarch Gregory V was martyred that same year.
  • On paper things looked up after the Crimean War where Turks allied with England and France. When signing the Peace of Paris of 1856, the Sultan Medjid issued the Gatti-Gamayun, granting Christians equal rights with Moslems.
  • The Gatti-Gamayun did nothing to improve the lives of the Greeks so they began to retaliate in the second half of the nineteenth century which was back and forth slaughter between the Christians and the Turks.
  • 1861 saw uprisings in Bosnia/Herzegovina, in Serbia, Wallachia, Moldavia, and Bulgaria.
  • 1866 saw rebellion on the island of Crete.
  • 1875 saw a new uprising in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • Probably the most mind-boggling changes to occur in the Church during these 400 years of Moslem occupation was the growth of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Greek nationalism focused itself in the Church, its only real vehicle of power. Even in the face of constant struggle at home in Constantinople and the agony of their faithful the Patriarchs of Constantinople waged a war for power in the Church and won. The patriarchs, throughout these centuries, systematically subdued all the Slavic churches which had previously been autocephalic, and the patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria, where Orthodox Arabs all but making them Greek, and systematically eliminating in them any memory of their independent past.

Further Reading

  • Arnakis, G. Georgiades. "The Greek Church of Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire." The Journal of Modern History. Vol. 24, No. 3 (Sep., 1952), pp.235-250.
  • Gradeva, Rossitsa. Orthodox Christians in the Kadi Courts: The Practice of the Sofia Sheriat Court, Seventeenth Century. Islamic Law and Society. Vol. 4, No. 1 (1997), pp.37-69.
  • Meyendorff, Fr. John. "Byzantine Views of Islam." Dumbarton Oaks Papers. Vol. 18 (1964), pp.113-132.
  • Milton, Giles. Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of Islam's City of Tolerance. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., London, 2008. (ISBN 978 0 340 96234 3)
  • Papadopoulos, Theodore H. Studies and Documents Relating to the History of the Greek Church and People Under Turkish Domination. 2nd ed. Variorum, Hampshire, Great Britain, 1990. (ISBN 0-86078-278-6)
  • Runciman, Steven. The Fall of Constantinople. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1965. (ISBN 0 521 39832 0)
  • Sahas, Daniel J. (Prof). Byzantium and Islam: An Encounter of Two Theocracies, Mutual Admiration and Exclusion. Greek Canadian Association of Constantinople ("Constantinople and its Legacy" Annual Lecture). Toronto, February 7, 1993.
  • Vryonis, Speros (Jr). The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1971. (ISBN 0-520-05753-8)


  • Hussey, J. M. The Byzantine World. London, 1961.
  • Mango, C. The Oxford History of Byzantium. Oxford, NY, 2002.
  • Runciman, S. The Great Church in Captivity. Cambridge, UK, 2001.
  • Walker, W. A History of the Christian Church. 4th ed., New York, NY, 1985.

External Links