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Christianity and the Ottoman Empire

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Atlas of the World’s Religions, Second Edition What is This? Depicts the historical development and present state of the world's major religions

    Christianity and the Ottoman Empire

    THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE was a major threat to the hegemony of Christian Europe from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. The origins of the Ottoman dynasty lie in northwestern Anatolia, though it is difficult to say why they suddenly emerged as such a powerful force. One theory proposes that it was because they were strategically well placed to attack the Christian Byzantine Empire, and therefore attracted Muslim fighters who wished to wage holy war against Christianity. They first drove the Byzantines from Anatolia – which they achieved by 1338 – and in 1354 occupied Gallipoli, their first base in Europe, and the one from which they launched their drive into southeastern Europe. In 1389 there occurred the decisive battle of Kosovo. The Serbian King Lazarus, who had been offering sturdy resistance to the Ottoman Turk advance, gathered an army of Albanians, Bosnians, Bulgars, Hungarians, Poles and even Mongols as well as Serbs. Although before the battle the Ottoman sultan, Murad I, was assassinated with a poisoned dagger, the Serbian coalition was decisively defeated, and Lazarus was executed.

    The Fall of Constantinople

    The greatest shock to Christian Europe came, however, with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 . Many Byzantine scholars fled westward, particularly to Italy, and made a substantial contribution to the Renaissance. Hungary fell after the battle of Mohács, just over one hundred miles south of Buda, when in 1526 the Hungarian army was annihilated and the king killed. The Turkish army marched on to Vienna, placing the city under siege in 1529 and 1532 : it was in part this threat which prevented the Emperor Charles V from giving full attention to the developing Reformation in his German territories. Vienna did not fall, which was something of a success for the Christian armies, but the first notable Christian victory was a sea battle at Lepanto (the Gulf of Corinth) on 7 October 1571 . The victorious army was that of the Holy League, a coalition of the Papal States, Genoa, Venice and Spain, originally put together in 1511 by Pope Julius II . At Lepanto the Holy League forces were led by Don John of Austria.

    Christianity and the Ottoman Empire

    1. Christianity and the Rise of the Ottomans

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    The Decline of the Ottoman Empire

    The victory, though hailed as a great triumph by the Christians (the Pope established the Feast of the Holy Rosary on 7 October to mark the event), in effect altered little. The Ottoman Turks were not forced to withdraw from any territory. The turning-point in this Christian–Muslim conflict was the victory over the Turks, once again besieging Vienna, by the Polish King John III Sobieski in 1683 , who had already defeated them at Khotin in 1673 in defence of his homeland. The long decline of the Ottoman Empire then began, because of defeats in battle by Austrian and Russian forces, and because of internal weaknesses. (Hungary was recovered by the Habsburgs at the Treaty of Carlowitz in 1699 .) Many of the territories within the vast Empire, which stretched into Africa and Asia as much as into Europe, were effectively self-governing and in time became autonomous: Greece in 1830 , Serbia the following year and so on.

    Christianity and the Ottoman Empire

    2. Christianity and the Decline of the Ottomans

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    In the course of the nineteenth century they became fully independent.

    By the mid-nineteenth century the European powers were exerting considerable influence on the Ottomans, partly because of their precarious financial state, and partly on behalf of the large numbers of Christians who lived under Turkish rule: the Armenians in particular had suffered persecution at the hands of the Turks. The final collapse of the Empire was precipitated after the government entered the First World War on the side of Germany.

    Varieties of Christianity in the Ottoman Empire

    The Christians ruled over by the Turks were not only the Orthodox and Roman Catholics in Europe, but also many Eastern-rite Christians in Asia Minor and North Africa. The communities survived, and shows the distribution of their major episcopal sees.

    Christianity and the Ottoman Empire

    3. Eastern-rite Christians

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    Armenia was the first nation officially to become Christian, with the baptism in 303 CE of King Tiridates III and his court. Shortly afterwards the kingdom disappeared, divided between the Byzantines and the Persians. It has occasionally been re-established for short periods – there is now, of course, an independent Republic of Armenia. Armenian Christians are formally Monophysite, a stance adopted chiefly to distinguish themselves from their Byzantine rulers. The Catholicos of the Armenians has resided at the monastery of Echmiadzin since the fourth century, making Echmiadzin the oldest Christian monastic institution anywhere. Some Armenians united with Rome at the Council of Sis in 1307 , and still survive as a separate Church, though 100,000 are thought to have died in massacres by the Turks at the end of the First World War.

    The Syrians likewise did not accept the Council of Chalcedon of 451 and adopted a Monophysite understanding of the nature of Christ. An independent hierarchy, under the Patriarch of Antioch, emerged in the course of the sixth century. Again like the Armenians, a separate Church in communion with Rome was established in 1656 , though not effectively until towards the end of the eighteenth century. It began at Aleppo, though the seat of the Catholic Patriarch is in Beirut, while that of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch is now in Damascus. Again like the Armenians, the Syrians underwent considerable persecution in the death throes of the Ottoman Empire.

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