I, hereby declare and record this decree for my followers. Regarding the Christians, known or unknown, in East or West, far or near. The ones who do not follow this decree, and follow my commands, will actually be opposing the God’s will, whether he is sultan or an ordinary Muslim, deserves to be cursed. If priests or monks find shelter in a mountain, or a cave; or if they reside in the plain, desert, city, village or a church, personally I am backing them with my armies and followers and defend them against their enemies. Those priests are my people (tabaa). I refrain from giving any harm to them. It is prohibited to expel a bishop from his duty, a priest from his church, a hermit from his shelter. A Muslim is not allowed to hinder a Christian woman, whom he has married, from worshipping in her church and obeying the scriptures of her religion. Anyone who opposes these will be considered as Allah’s and his Messenger’s enemy. Muslims are obliged to follow these commands till the end of the world”
THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD (Peace and blessings be upon him)
Sultan Mehmed II1 reorganized Greek Orthodoxy when he conquered Istanbul (then known as Constantinople). Even though he could have stunted and stifled Eastern Orthodoxy (from this point on just referred as Orthodoxy), he supported it and assigned Georgios Skelarios, a Greek cleric, as the patriarch with the title ‘Gennadios.’
As the Turkish political presence in Anatolia (Asia Minor) rose in prominence, the Byzantine church was already experiencing a severe decline. The leadership of the Balkans broke its ties with the Byzantine Church due to the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore, while the Greek Orthodox Church was collapsing, the Ottoman government saved it from demise.
GREEK MINORITY IN ISTANBUL
After his conquest of Istanbul, Sultan Mehmed Khan said the following words to a crowd gathered in front of the mosque of Hagia Sophia2: “I am telling you all, that as my subjects do not fear for either your lives or for your freedom, you are safe from my wrath.” The Sultan then declared that people who had left the city out of fear, could return to their homes to continue their lives in accordance with their own traditions and customs among the Turks. In addition, he settled some of the captives to homes near Halic (The Golden Horn).3 In an effort to establish a sense of normalcy, the Ottoman State, repaired damaged houses, and provided public stability by establishing new courts. In order to revive the city, many Greeks were brought from the east and west of the country. Greeks, who were new to Istanbul were exempt from some taxes, and were granted new houses or land if they did not own either one. In addition, landowners were furnished with animals in order to cultivate their lands. The Greeks who emigrated from Epin to Galata brought many talents with them and were encouraged to utilize them. Many emigrants either chose to settle in coastal areas or at the center of a thriving city. The Greeks who came to Istanbul in the following centuries settled in their original places of origin often within close proximity of established churches.
SULTAN MEMMED II REVITALIZED THE ORTHODOXY
When Mehmed II became aware of the installation of the new patriarch to his position of Gennadios, the Sultan invited him to a banquet. In order to show his respect for both the ceremony and the patriarch’s position, Sultan Mehmed II, along with his elder vezirs4 personally welcomed the patriarch. The Sultan, who was often the recipient of a good deal of pomp and circumstance, welcomed the patriarch by shaking his hand and by offering him a seat near him. Sultan Mehmed, who made the patriarch the “head of the Greek nation,” presented the patriarch a white horse and the ‘stick of Moses’-as the Byzantine emperors had done for centuries. This formality legitimized the patriarch’s position in the eyes of both the Ottomans and the Byzantines. Since Sultan Mehmed spoke five languages, one of which was Greek, he assured the patriarch of his position by stating in Greek: “In safety and comfort, and as a government official, now and later, know that you have my support and the patriarchal office.”
ISLAM AND THE NON-MUSLIM MINORITY
The tolerance and the leniency of Sultan Mehmed II showed toward all none-Muslim minorities was a manifestation of his inner Islamic beliefs that had been established by the Muhammad (Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him). According to a strong hadith-an account of the actions or words of the Prophet Muhammad-The Messenger prohibited even a minute disturbance, offense or harm against non-Muslims, “A person, who torments a Jew or a Christian, will find me as a plaintiff against him in the Day of Judgment.” In another account, he states: “If anybody torments and offends the non-Muslim subjects in an unjustifiable manner, I am an adversary of him, and I’ll become his enemy in the Day of Judgment.”
CONQUEST BY KINDNESS AND NOT BY THE SWORD
The armies of Islam, conquered the hearts of many non-Muslims by allowing them the opportunity to practice their own religion without fear of undue influence. By demonstrating tolerance and forbearance toward Christians, Sultan Mehmed II was following the example of many of his Muslim predecessors. The first caliph Hazrat5 Ebubekir (the first Islamic spiritual leader after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad), ordered the military and civilian rulers to refrain from tormenting clergy members or ruin churches and monasteries because they were serving God. In keeping with this tradition, Hz. Omar could have used his position of caliphate to torment non-Muslims; however, he did not. When the clergy of the conquered lands presented the cities to him voluntarily, the patriarch invited Hz.Omar to perform prayers (salah) in the main Church of Jerusalem. He refused the offer by saying, “The church in which I perform prayer, becomes a masjid (a place where Muslims perform prayer) for Muslims. I don’t want to deprive Christians from this Cathedral by praying here.”
Thus, Sultan Mehmed II, like other Islamic leaders, followed and remained steadfast to the doctrine of Islam. Consequently, he defended those who considered him an enemy. In the days when oppression ran rampant, Sultan Mehmed II showed that conquership and maintance of the dignity and respect could coexist in the same sphere.
- Sultan Mehmed II, is more widely known as Fatih Sultan Mehmed. Fatih literally means ‘the opener’, but generally it is translated as ‘conqueror’. This name is given due to his conquest of Constantinople, then known as the former capital of Byzantium.
- Hagia Sophia: A place of worship that was transformed from a church to o mosque. Currently, it is a museum.
- The Golden Horn: A waterway that was of strategic importance to the Byzantines.
- Vezir: An advisor to the Sultan.
- Hazrat: A person with highly spiritual convictions.