Church History 4 - Orthodoxy Under the Ottomans (1453-1821)

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Orthodoxy Under the Ottomans (1453-1821)

The Christian ghetto

According to Muslim belief, Christians, as well as Jews, were considered as "people of the Book"; i.e., their religion was seen as not entirely false, but incomplete. Accordingly, provided that Christians submitted to the dominion of the caliphate and the Muslim political administration and paid appropriate taxes, they deserved consideration and freedom of worship. Any Christian mission or proselytism among the Muslims, however, was considered a capital crime. In fact, Christians were formally reduced to a ghetto existence: they were the Rum millet, or the "Roman nation" conquered by Islam but enjoying a certain internal autonomy.

In January 1454 the Sultan allowed the election of a new patriarch, who was to become millet-bachi, the head of the entire Christian millet, or in Greek the "ethnarch," with the right to administer, to tax, and to exercise justice over all the Christians of the Turkish empire. Thus, under the new system, the patriarch of Constantinople saw his formal rights and jurisdiction extended both geographically and substantially: on the one hand, through the privileges granted to him by the sultan, he could practically ignore his colleagues, the other Orthodox patriarchs, and, on the other hand, his power ceased to be purely canonical and spiritual but became political as well. To the enslaved Greeks, he appeared not only as the successor of the Byzantine patriarchs but also as the heir of the emperors. For the Ottomans, he was the official and strictly controlled administrator of the Rum millet. In order to symbolize these new powers, the patriarch adopted an external attire reminiscent of that of the emperors: miter in form of a crown, long hair, eagles as insignia of authority, and other imperial accouterments.

The new system had many significant consequences. Most important, it permitted the church to survive as an institution; indeed, the prestige of the church was actually increased because, for Christians, the church was now the only source of education and it alone offered possibilities of social promotion. Moreover, through the legal restrictions placed on mission, the new arrangement created the practical identification of church membership with ethnic origin. And finally, since the entire Christian millet was ruled by the patriarch of Constantinople and his Greek staff, it guaranteed to the Phanariots, the Greek aristocracy of the Phanar (now called Fener, the area of Istanbul where the patriarchate was, and still is, located), a monopoly in episcopal elections. Thus, Greek bishops progressively came to occupy all the hierarchical positions. The ancient patriarchates of the Middle East were practically governed by the Phanar. The Serbian and Bulgarian churches came to the same fate: the last remnants of their autonomy were formally suppressed in 1766 and 1767, respectively, by the Phanariot patriarch Samuel Hantcherli. This Greek control, exercised through the support of the hated Turks, was resented more and more by the Balkan Slavs and Romanians as the Turkish regime became more despotic, taxes grew heavier, and modern nationalisms began to develop.

It is necessary, however, to credit the Phanariots with a quite genuine devotion to the cause of learning and education, which they alone were able to provide inside the oppressed Christian ghetto. The advantages they obtained from the Porte (the Turkish government) for building schools and for developing Greek letters in the Romanian principalities of Moldavia and Walachia that were entrusted to their rule came to play a substantial role in the rebirth of Greece.

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