Crypto-Christians of the Ottoman Empire: Reasons, Problems and Consequences
Cover photo: Pontic musicians from Trabzon
Article author: Garik Markaryan
Crypto-Christianity in the Ottoman Empire is a quite understudied topic in the historiography. How did the «hidden Christians» appear, what was the reason behind their Islamization and where are they now? Through this short article we will try to give answers to all the questions.
It is evident that the representatives of Christians, who forcibly converted Islam, could not so easily put aside the traditional Christian rituals and holidays. The unwillingness to abandon their Christian identity led to the formation of so called Crypto-Christians; a community who publicly professed Islam but remained Christian secretly.
The remarkable thing is that often not only the church disowned the Crypto-Christians but also anathematized them considering them to be heretics at the most. However let's leave aside the position of the official Church and try to understand how this phenomenon arose and what consequences it led to.
A handful of sources do not allow us to give an accurate estimate of the amount of Crypto-Christians in the Ottoman Empire. However, we know for a fact about the enforced Islamization that affected the broad masses of the Christian population. The remarkable thing is that the adoption of Islam by the Christian subjects was not economic for the government since Christians paid a large number of taxes; hence those becoming one of «the faithful» reduced the income of the treasury. Consequently as long as the Christians did not seem an urgent threat to the state their Islamization was pointless. In case of upheavals and riots the forcible imposition of Islam to suppress the insubordinations solved several problems at one stroke, the main of which was that the Turkized population lost support among their own ethnos.
Islamization took place throughout the Ottoman Empire and as mentioned above, it was often the result of retaliatory actions in response to the disobedience of Christians. There are a number of sources that shed light on the nascence of hidden Christians, the most massive and reliable of which may be considered the information about the crypto-Christians of Trabzon.
For example, there were Muslims living in some villages of Rize province of Trabzon villayet who kept in memory the rite of baptism and who spoke Armenian and not Turkish . Considering the geographical position of the city of Rize we may assume that this entails the Hamshen (Hemshil)-Muslims, sub ethnic group of Armenians. The medieval sources of Arab and Armenian historians (works of Tovma Artsruni, Vardan Bardzraberdzi, al-Baladzuri, al-Yakubi) allow for the conclusion that there were significant Arab colonies in the region. Perhaps it was under their influence that the gradual Islamization of Armenian population took place, and upon the arrival of the Turks to the region the situation got worse.
So we may assume that before the arrival of the Turks, two Armenian communities were living in Hamshen represented by Christians and Muslims. In the long run as a result of the religious policy pursued by the Ottomans the Christian Hamshens were forced to move to the Black Sea lands of the Russian Empire by preserving their faith. The other part called Hemshil remained in the region either because there were already Muslim before the arrival of the Turks or they were forcibly Islamized afterwards. The intricacy of the issue is due to the fact that by the arrival of the Turks the Armenian historiography was on the cusp of decadent stage and, accordingly, it is impossible to trace the events as per the testimonies of contemporaries. Note that as per the sources the crypto-Christians of Trabzon looked like the Armenians of Batumi province that «converted to Islam two hundred years ago» .
Conversion to Islam under penalty of death was practiced in the Ottoman Empire since the first centuries of its existence. Moreover not only representatives of Christian population were converted to Islam, but adherents of other confessions as well. It is widely known in the history the example of the so called «dyonme» or Jewish apostates, adherents of Shabtai Tsvi who adopted Islam in 1666 during the reign of sultan Mehmed IV . Three centuries later former Jews almost lost the roots of their identity, one of the few proofs of their aforetime adherence to the Jewish nation was the language used during the prayers in the mosques (Hebrew or Ladino).
Quite the contrary was the example of the Greeks that adopted Islam. For example, the crypto Christians «Stavrioti» (istavri) got their name from the village Stavra that was Islamized in the XVII century. However the conversion of the Greek population of Trabzon into Islam had occurred earlier as well. Thus, according to the tax register of the Ottoman Empire, studied by G. Lovri and cited in A. Braier's work , by 1529, 59 years after the fall of Trabzon, under the pressure of the Turk-Ottomans the Christians accounted for 86% percent of the total population of the region. By 1583 the situation was completely different: Islam was professed by 54% of the population, regardless the fact that 77% of the population was using the Greek language. In the XIX century the Stavrioti men not only had Muslim names but also served in the Ottoman army. Nevertheless this did not prevent them from maintaining close contacts with the Orthodox Greeks and secretly profess Christianity .
There are many examples of interpenetration of religions among the population of the Ottoman Empire. For example in the European part of the empire there were communities where people had Muslim names that they used in public and Christian names that was used in the community. There were also more interesting options of the synthesis of religions in the minds of people: the male baptized children were circumcised, they could pray in churches and mosques, they could keep the Christian fast but attended the mosque during Ramadan, during the weddings the Christian and Muslim rituals were observed, moreover at the death of the representatives of the community they read the burial service as Christians but were buried in the Muslim cemeteries. One of the brightest illustrations of the hard luck of crypto-Christians in the Ottoman Empire were the records of Russian traveler P.A. Chikhachev. Talking about his stay in the Ottoman town of Kerasund located near Trabzon, the traveler recalled of a meeting with a Muslim Suleiman, who persistently sought a meeting with the geographer. The author claimed that he had neither time, nor a desire to talk with a stranger Muslim, especially on issues related to Koran; however he agreed to meet him.
As it turned out mufti Suleiman was at the same time a Christian priest by the name of Parthenius. The fact startled P.A. Chikhachev. It emerged that the old man needed the help of his co-religionists, as he asked the traveler to help him as «the Christian to Christian». «I need help», — the old man told me and a big tear ran down his long white silk beard. — I don't have much time left and I can secretly serve my Lord, as I have been doing it for almost 70 years. But I have a daughter, whom I call Fatime in public but when we are alone I hold her to my chest and gently pronounce her name Sofia. I must rescue the pure creature. It's time for her to get married and I cannot refuse the Muslims that have heard about her beauty to marry her. There are also many powerful Muslims among them. I feel that I will die the day a Turk marries her and closes her in his harem. Please help poor Sofia and her accompanying relative, also a Christian to set off for Crimea or Tiflis or any other Christian country. I will give him money to guarantee a comfortable life for my daughter and will dedicate the rest of my life to pray to God asking him to reward you for your kindness». The author said that he was very touched by the words of the old man and did his best to help the daughter of crypto-Christian Parthenius.
The story from P.A. Likhachev's «Notes about Turkey» makes for some very important conclusions.
So the thesis is once again confirmed that the crypto-Christians had «two lives» in fact, one Muslim where the crypto-Christians were devout Muslims in front of the broad public and the second one was Christian: which they showed when being around their relatives and co-religionists. Chikhachev also showed the problem of assimilation that affected all the non Muslim people of the Empire; however the crypto-Christians suffered the most. The reason for this was the absence of the religious barrier: if the marriage with the female representatives of «infidels» was disapproved for the Muslims, then in terms of the marriage with crypto-Christians the confession factor no longer existed.
As we mentioned above the number of the crypto-Christians in the Ottoman Empire is almost impossible to define due to the particularity of the phenomenon under study, nevertheless Vital Quinette gives some data according to which the amount of crypto-Christians in the nine villages by Trabzon reach up to 15 thousand people . It should be noted that similar to the Christian Armenians, the Orthodox Greeks had to move to the Crimea and the surrounding territories pulling through the aggression of the Muslim population. As the British historian F.B. Haslak notes the amount of Greeks who left Trabzon was about eight thousand families, the rest were forced to convert to Islam publicly although many of them continued to secretly adhere to the Christian faith .
Greek historian G. Andriadis descending from the crypto-Christian family, in his article «Invisible faith, Crypto-Christians of Pontus» often refers to the memories of his grandmother Aphrodite, who, according to the author, was quite accurate in her statements. In the recollections of Kromni, the native village of the historian it is said that «there is no other place in the world where there were as many secret churches, as in Kromni. Every house had its own small underground chapel where the crypto-Christians secretly held their Christian rituals beyond the vision of the Muslims and Ottomans, government officials and representatives of administration». There were other places of service, e.g. near the village Sarandon there was a hill overgrown with shrubs where the church-cave «Hidden Virgin» was located. The church functioned secretly for several centuries. The entrance to the underground church was carefully hidden from the onlookers, as was the case with the home places for prayers, the manholes of which were hidden from the onlookers with furniture or hay. In the small domestic churches the walls with icons were lit with small lamps and wax candles, it was in such an environment that the crypto-Christians gathered at night to hold services and prayers . The remarkable thing is that according to the information provided by the grandmother of the historian, by and large crypto-Christians were more observant Christians and strictly followed all the church traditions and fast days .
The most important event in the life of crytpo-Christians was the promulgation of the sultan decrees dating back to Tanzimat who granted the people of the Empire actual religious freedom. Note that if earlier the real faith of the crytpo-Christians was revealed, they would have been killed; the conversion of crypto-Christians into Christianity in the Ottoman perception was perceived as deviation from Islam and was punished in no other way than through death penalty.
According to the Russian diplomat in Persia and Islam expert N.E. Tornau who was familiar both with the theoretical part and the practical aspect of the Mohammedan law «a Muslim born in an Orthodoxy, if he leaves his faith is subject to the death penalty and anyone is free to kill him»; as the representatives of other religions, «those who became Muslim, but left it, are give three days for attrition, during this time he is admonished, but if he does not agree to adopt the Muslim religion again then he is subjected to death penalty» .
The same is written in Hadith №3017 of Sahih al-Bukhari: «having learnt that Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, had burnt some people, Ibn Abbas, may Allah be pleased with them, said: «(If I were him) I would not burn them, for the prophet, may Allah bless and welcome him, said: ― (No one) should be punished in the name of Allah. I (simply) would have killed them, about which the prophet, may Allah bless and welcome him, said the following: — (If a Muslim) changes his religion kill him» .
It was in the XIX century when the crypto-Christians were rescued from the fear of revealing their true faith, namely several social upheavals that contributed to the public awakening of ethnic and confessional self-consciousness of the crypto-Christians.
The first event was the Greek uprising against the Ottoman rule, the second one was the promulgation of sultan Abdul Medjid in 1839 Gyulhani Hatt-i-sherif which promised such reports as annulment of agriculture tax, the reform on induction into military service and guarantee of the rights of all the citizens of the Ottoman Empire despite their religion or ethnic origin . The third event was the formation of Hatt-i-himayun in 1856 or the so called Sultan's edict on reforms that confirmed and supplemented the decree of 1839, giving them legal status.
Immediately after the publication of Hatt-i-Himayun the «Muslims» started to publicly declare about their Christian faith. In March, 1857 after a year of the opening of Peter Sidiropulos, 150 crypto-Christians, and heads of villages came to the monastery of Teodokepastos in Trabzon and swore in the church to reveal their faith and remain faithful in the face of exile or death. The interesting part here is the record of amount of crypto-Christians done by the British consul in the Ottoman Empire, the only person who did not believe in the existence of the latter and considered that the so called «crypto-Christians» are none other than the Muslims who do not want to serve in the army. After receiving reliable information about the problem the British ambassador quotes the following numbers: 55 villages in the Kromni village: 9535 Muslims, 17260 newly revealed crypto-Christians and 26960 actual Christians. The counting of the Muslims could also include crypto-Christian villages and families that had not revealed their faith yet. A year later bishop Sevasta Gervasios provides statistics about 25000 revealed crypto-Christians throughout Asia Minor .
Summing up the remarkable thing is that in the future the amount of crypto-Christians revealing their true faith continued to grow, however the famous events of the beginning of the XX century caused a rejection from the public statements about their religious affiliation due to which the problem of crypto-Christians is relevant in modern Turkey as well.
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