What Nations Claimed to Protect Christian Interests in the Ottoman Empire?

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Treatment of Christians in the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire’s treatment of Jews and Christians is still a point of contention over a century after the Empire’s formal collapse. In the largely Muslim Ottoman Empire, religious affiliation determined status. Christians and Jews were looked down upon and were referred to as “inferior” and “illegitimate denominations”. As a result, the state entity frequently discriminated against them. Many others claim that minorities’ treatment under the Ottomans was lenient compared to treatment of minorities in other places of the world, like in portions of Europe.

This isn’t to suggest that Christians and Jews had complete freedom under Islamic rule. The citizens, as well as the government, saw them as inferior subjects. In simpler words, Muslims in the Ottoman Empire had a superiority complex due to their acceptance of the Prophet Muhammad as the last prophet, a view that Christians didn’t share. Their refusal may have prompted Muslim authorities to regard them as incompetent. As a result, they were compelled to pay Jizya, a specific poll tax. While they were permitted to have particular senior-level roles, such as accountants and surgeons, they were limited to positions that made them subordinates to Muslims.

So what nations claimed to protect Christian interests in the Ottoman Empire? What did this lead to, and what happened as a result? It led to two notorious wars that are further discussed below.

Crimean War

This was a military war between Russia and the United Kingdom, France, Piedmont-Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire that lasted from 1853–1856. Christian minority rights in Palestine, which came under the Ottomans’ rule, were the primary cause. The Roman Catholic rights were advocated by the French, while those of the Eastern Orthodox Church were promoted by Russia. Longer-term factors included the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the growth of the Russian Empire in the coming Russo-Turkish wars, and the desires of the French and British to protect the Ottoman Empire to sustain the Concert of Europe’s power balance.

The churches sorted out their disagreements with the Ottomans and settled, but Napoleon III of France and Nicholas I of Russia refused to budge. Nicholas issued a notice, demanding that the Ottoman Empire’s Orthodox people be put under his control. Britain tried to negotiate and reached an agreement with Nicholas, which he accepted. Nicholas then backtracked and started preparing for war when the Ottomans wanted to make certain changes in the contract.

The Russians seized the Danubian Principalities in July 1853. After receiving pledges of backing from Britain and France, the Ottomans decided to go to war with Russia in October 1853. The Ottomans, led by Omar Pasha, waged a powerful defense at Silistra, stopping the Russian advance.

The conflict ended on March 30, 1856, when the Treaty of Paris was signed. It made it illegal for Russia to station warships in the Black Sea. Moldavia and Wallachia, two Ottoman territories, became increasingly independent. There was some official equality for Christians, and the Orthodox Church seized control over the Christian churches in dispute.

Background and Major Cause

The Ottoman Empire faced threats to its very survival since the early 1800s. The first Balkan Christian Ottoman nation was liberated with the 1804 Serbian Revolution. The Greek War of Independence put extra strain on the Ottomans concerning political cohesion and military strength.

While there were several other causes for the development of tensions, many of which related to the Empire’s collapse, religion was a more urgent source of conflict that needed to be solved. Several years before 1853, disagreement between Orthodox Russia and Catholic France was over the access control to sacred sites in the Holy Land. This was a precedent cause of contention between the two nations.

The escalating tensions over this subject reached a pinnacle when rioting broke out in Bethlehem, part of the Ottoman Empire. Several Orthodox monks were murdered in the fighting with French monks. The Turks, who controlled these areas, were blamed by the Russians for these killings.

Since it was a property of the Muslim Ottoman Empire and of immense significance to Christianity and Judaism, the Holy Land faced several issues. Religion fueled the Crusades in the Middle Ages to gain control of this land. At the same time, the Christian Church had divided into smaller denominations, with the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church constituting two of the largest. However, as both claimed sovereignty of the sacred sites, the two could not overcome their disagreements and religion as a source of strife reappeared.

By 1852, the French had taken possession of several religious sites. Nicholas saw this as a challenge to Russia and the Orthodox Church. It was straightforward for Nicholas; he considered the preservation of Orthodox Christians as a top priority, believing that many were treated below normal citizens.

The commencement of the Crimean War was the culmination of long-term international difficulties and local disputes in the Holy Land over the Christian minorities. The waning Ottoman Empire’s power provided a chance for other nations to increase their power base for numerous years. The thirst for dominance, fear of competition, and religious conflict were too tough to settle in the end.

Our Final Thoughts

No matter what denominations claimed to protect Christian interests in the Ottoman Empire, what denominations you come from, and what background you have, we should always learn to respect each other as Christians. We must fill our hearts with the love and light of Jesus Christ. Such are the teachings of our Lord and Savior, and the surest way to attain happiness and peace on earth. That’s the only way we can form unity and increase our faith.