Treatment of Minorities by the Ottomans

The Ottoman Empire developed a policy of "Open Doors" and religious tolerance, beginning with the Greeks of Constantinople and the Haik of Bursa, and later the Haik of Crimea; continuing with the Jews expelled from Spain and later from Russia; and extending to numerous other minorities and victims of political persecution. In order to accomodate all these into the existing social, political and economic system, it developed the Quranic concept of dhimma , to ensure a method of Islamic rule tolerant to different cultures. This translated into a system of minority administrations known as the Millet system, whereby religious groups could rule their own people with minimal interference while ensuring Ottoman hegemony and efficient tax collection (Salahi Sonyel).


In 1492, the Iberic Jews were given a choice. Either accept Christianity (Roman Catholicism) or leave behind everything that you own, take only your life with you, and quit Spain forever. Otherwise, they would taste the unfaltering judgment of the Spanish Inquisition. Since the Jews are not much capable of make-believe, particularly when it comes to religious matters, most decided to abandon their fortune to the King Ferdinand and Queen Isabelle and depart for exile. The royal couple would turn this fortune into one of the best investments for Spain: They would use it to underwrite Christopher Colombus' expeditions to discover new worlds and usher in the Colonial Age. The expulsed Jews were mostly accepted by 3 countries. Morocco, Netherlands and the Ottoman Empire. Historians record that most of the exiled Jews ended up in the Ottoman Empire, at the time ruled by Sultan Selim II, son of Suleiman the Magnificient. As they were being settled in various provinces of the Empire, particularly in the Thracian domains, names, regions of origin, and areas of resettlement were meticulously recored, in Ottoman archives (Click here for translations of page 1, 2, 3, 4).The Ottomans would extend they saving grace to the Jews over and over again in subsequent centuries. Crimean Jews, Jews of Jerusalem. The only exception was in 1666, when the son of a wealthy merchant from Smyrna claimed to be the false messiah. This man, Sebbatai Sevi, was forced by the Sunni Ottoman regime to deny his heretical views on pain of torture and death. He converted on the surface but, deep inside, he and many of his followers continued their Kabalist beliefs and practices. Today, in Turkey, there are several hundred thousand Sabbataist muslims, who occupy affluent positions in politics, trade, arts, etc. Most of the founders of the Committee of Union and Progress were Sebbataist Jews from Thessalonika, as were most of the Ottoman and Turkish administrations in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively.In WWII, Jews again faced persecution on a grand scale. Most ended up in Nazi concentration camps and perished. Those who could escape went to Allied or neutral countries, including the Republic of Turkey. letter of Albert Einstein is testimony that the "Open Doors" policy of the Ottoman Empire had been inherited by and pursued under the Turkish Republic in the 20th century.In another example of personal heroism and sacrifice, the Turkish Consul General to Rhodes, Selahattin Ulkumen, himself a Sebbataist, interceded to save the lives of 42 Jewish families of Turkish nationality from depertation to Auschwitz. He was honored in 1990 as a "Righteous Gentile" (Zaddik) by Yad Va-Shem. His story is depicted in the movie, Desperate Hours


Millets In Balkan Territories

Turks first set foot in Europe in early 1300s and by mid 16th century, under successive successes of Mehmet II, Bayezid II, Selim I, and Suleyman I, they had already conquered all of the Balkans; what is today Romania, Wallachia, Transilvania and Moldavia; most of Hungary; and had made vassal states around almost all the shores of the Black Sea . From the onset, the Ottomans made it known to the people they subjected with these conquests that the local religious practices would not only be tolerated but respected with the utmost care by the central government and local administration. Let's follow the clear, fluid and informative style of Lord Kinross, from his "The Ottoman Empire"- Chapter 2: A Foothold in Europe, pp. 22-28 (London, The Folio Society, 2003):"The entry of the Turks into Europe was no sudden irruption, like that of the Mongols across Asia. ...As a later French traveler was to write, 'The country is safe, and there are no reports of brigands or highwaymen' - more than could be said, at that time, of other realms of Christendom". The archives are replete with documents that attest to this magnanimity so characteristic of the Ottoman rule:As Mehmet II advanced into Bosnia and Serbia, he issued an imperial firman to the Bosnian priests to practice their religious in freedom. A copy of the original letter, (dated April 4, 1478), its transliteration and translation are shown here (Living Together under the Same Sky, Archives of the Office of the Prime Minister, Republic of Turkey). This tradition would continue over the subsequent centuries, so much so that, the local Christian minorities kept sending letters expressing their appreciation for the religious tolerance of their Ottoman rulers. One such letter of gratitude (dated April 16, 1853) was sent by the inhabitants of Tuzla in Bosnia to Sultan Abdulmecid Han (ruled 1839-61), ( Transliteration Translation) and another written in Serbian and dated February 2, 1872, to his brother Sultan Abdulaziz Han (ruled 1861-76), for his assistance from the Ottoman treasury to the completion of a church in Yenipazar, Bosnia. Other examples of correspondences to and from the Sultans regarding their benevolent rule of the Christian minorities abound in the Ottoman archives.

Other Acts of Compassion

The Ottomans extended their care and compassion to other nations and groups in distress on a routine basis. Some examples are the help that was sent to Ireland during the great famine of 1847 (Click here for theoriginal document , its transliteration , and translation ); and the aid to United States during a period of devastating forest fires (Click here for the original document , its transliteration , and translation ).


The Haik

Under almost 5 centuries of Ottoman rule, the Haik prospered economically, their population increased by births and by migrations, and they were granted free religious practices, like all other non-Muslim minorities under Ottoman rule. The Haik have always been given special privileges by the Turks while their were under Turkish domination. They seldom observed the responsibilities that came with those privileges, though. They thought that an Empire as great as the Ottoman, even when ultimately weakened, would allow an ethnic minority to split and build its own state. They miscalculated several points: One, that the Balkan ethnicities were already forming a majority against the Muslims there; two, that the Allies and the Russians who sicced them against their masters would remain loyal to them till the dire end; and three, that rebellion and massacre would go unpunished. Below, is a synopsis of why the Haik were privileged and how they ignored the only responsibility that came with those privileges, i.e., loyalty.

  • Population: There are various sources for the numbers of the Haik who inhabited Ottoman territories during those 5 centuries that the Haik were ruled by the Ottomans (e.g. by up to 243%, 87% and 82% between 1518 and 1523 in Ergani, Arapkir and Siverek, respectively). Most relevant to our discussion, however, are their numbers during the last quarter of the 19th and the first quarter of the 20th centuries. This is because if one adds the 200,000 to 300,000 Haik supposedly killed during the "Hamidiye Massacres" of 1895 and the 1.5 million Haik supposedly killed by the Young Turks in 1915 and the more than 1 million Haik who supposedly were forced into exile during WWI, one gets close to 3 million Haik in total, who supposedly lived in Ottoman territories in or before 1895. Paradoxically, the most reliable numbers in this case are the ones provided by the contemporary Ottoman censuses. These numbers are reliable because 1) It was the Haik who were mostly responsible of the Census Bureau (names) and 2) The Ottomans gained nothing by underestimating the Haik numbers, simply because they were taxing (dhimma) them like all other non-Muslims. The Muslim subjects of the Sultan did not pay the tax but served in the Ottoman army, from which service the dhimma-paying non-Muslims were exempt.Also, since the British, French and Germans were intimately involved with the "safety and rights" of the non-Muslim minorities of the Empire (as that gave them the perfect pretext to mingle with the internal affairs of the Ottomans), they frequently ran unofficial head counts of the Haik, esp. the Haik in the Eastern Vilayets, through their envoys. These numbers are important, because they represent an unbiased, non-Ottoman contemporary source for the Haik population of the Empire; they are also interesting because they surprisingly collaborate each other.

    • Ottoman Census:(Salahi Sonyel).

    • British Census:1890.

    • French Census:French Yellow BookThese numbers, reprinted in Excel . clearly show that the percentage of Haik population to the total population of the Ottoman Empire was only 9%. Furthermore, out of this total Haik population according to the French, only 6%. Haiks populated the 6 eastern Vilayets. This number agrees very well with the previous figures that the British have circulated among themselves.

    • German Census:German Embassy in LondonIf we compare the contemporary British, French and German sources about the Haik population, we see that all three are in close agreement with each other. The information transmitted from the local envoys of these Powers to their respective embassies, and from historical archives to us, unequivocally concur that the Haik population in the 6 eastern Vilayets of the Ottoman Empire was somewhere between 500, 000 and 600,000 during the 1890-1910 period.

    • Haik Census: The Haik Patriarchate in Istanbul provided the British an estimate of the Haik population in the Empire. Not surprisingly, these numbers were so inflated that even the British envoy to Erzurum Lloyd felt the need to correct them in his report to his superiors. Let's not forget that the Haik in Diaspora today claim to have lost 1.5 million to death and another million to exile (!). Clearly, either the French, British and German sources are altogether wrong or there is a problem with Haik memory today.

  • Religion:Following the Ottoman conquest of Bursa (1336), the See of the Western Gregorian Church in Kutahya was allowed to be moved to Bursa. In 1461, Mehmet II “The Conqueror” asked the Haik Catholicos Hovakim Ovahim to settle in the recently conquered Constantinople, with a number of Anatolian Haik subjects. Mehmet II donated the Church Sulumanastir in Psamatia to the use of the Haik. The Haik who chose to stay in Anatolia were appointed as guardians of several strategically important fortresses, such as those in Kozan and Gulek. Mehmet II also allowed the relocation of more than 70 thousand Haik from the Crimean Peninsula, where they had been sent into exile by the Byzantine government, to the coast of the Marmara Sea, south of Istanbul. In addition to the Gregorian Church, the Ottoman Government officially recognized the Catholic and Protestant Haik congregations in 1831 and 1859, respectively. Most interestingly, Sultan Abdulhamid II (ruled 1876-1908), the one called the Red Sultan by his opponents (particularly by the Haik) because of his alleged murders, is noted to have helped the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate, which was suffering from lack of money. The financial aid came in November 26, 1895, the very year the Sultan was being accused of widespread massacres (!) of the Haik population of the Empire (Click here for the original document, for its transliteration, and translation).

  • Press:Some 160 years prior to the establishment of a Turkish printing press, the Haik priest Apkar of Sivas was allowed to start his own press in 1567 in Istanbul. Other printing presses followed in Izmir (1759), Van (1859), Mus (1869), Sivas (1871). In 1908, there were 38 Haik presses all over the Ottoman territories. The First Haik newspaper, Jamanak, was published in 1905. By 1910, there were 5 newspapers and 7 journals printed in the Haik language. (YG Cark Turk Devletinin Hizmetinde Ermeniler (1453-1953), Istanbul 1953). By contrast, the French King Louis XIV (1643-1715) had ordered a Haik press in Marseilles closed.

  • Education:The Bezcian School was founded by Artin Bezcian in Kumkapi, Istanbul, in 1823. The following year, the Patriach Garabeth took the Kumkapi Grammar School under his protection. The Haik Commission of Education was founded on October 22, 1853.

  • Political Integration: Gabriel Noradounghian, who had been in charge of the Office of Legal Advisor to the Sublime Porte for 25 years, has acted as Head of Ottoman delegation in the peace talks with the Balkan countries at the conclusion of the Balkan Wars of 1912-3. In 1876, as the first Haik deputies entered the Ottoman Congress with the inauguration of the 1st National Assembly, Gabriel Noradounghian was the Minister of Commerce and Public Workes and subsequently, Minister of Foreign Affairs. Additionally, Agop Kazzazian, Mikael Portakalian and Ohannes Sakizlian served as successive Ministers of Finance; Bedros Halladjian, Krikor Sinapian and Krikor Agaton were elected to the position of Minister of Public Service; and Gharabed Artin David Anton Tingir Yaver and Oksan Mardikian were Ministers of Post-Telegraph-Telephone Services. There existed many Haik members of the Ottoman Chamber of Deputies and Chamber of Notables, Undersecretaries of State in the Ministries, Members of the Council of State (the highest administrative court in the Realm), Ambassadors, Provincial Governors and Mayors. Most notably, during the relocations of 1915, Bedros Halladjian was occupying the post of Minister of Public Works, a fact which demonstrates that the Ottoman Government had no intent or plan to annihilate wholesale its Haik citizens.In the Republic Era, which began in 1923, the Hayik deputy Munib Boya entered the first National Assembly of the newly founded Turkish Republic. In 1943, the Haik Berc Turker Keresteci entered the Turkish National Assembly as a deputy from Afyonkarahisar.

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