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Demetrios Constantelos

Altruistic Suicide or Altruistic Martyrdom?
Christian Greek orthodox Neomartyrs: A Case Study

[From Archives of Suicide Research, Volume 8, No 1, 2004].

Christian Greek Orthodox Under Islamic Rule

It is in the light of this background that we review the more specific accounts about the neo-martyrs of the Christian Greek Orthodox Church. Even though records speak about Christian martyrs under Muslim Arabs and later Muslim Turks from as early as the seventh century of our era, we will concentrate on the neo-martyrs from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries.(3) They are called neo-martyrs to distinguish them from those of the early Christian centuries who died under Roman persecution.

With the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire (324-1453), many Christians of the Greek Orthodox Church came under Ottoman Turkish rule: Islam was the dominant religion of the state and Christians were second-class citizens to say the least. From the beginning of the fifteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century numerous non-Muslims of several ethnic backgrounds were converted to Islam. Many were either induced or forced to apostatise, while many more made the change voluntarily. Nevertheless, extensive testimony not only of the contemporary Christian writers, both Eastern and Western, but also of Turkish, corroborates the fact that a considerable number of Christians preferred death rather than apostasy.

The present article is based on a variety of sources and principally on the bioi (vitae) of 172 Greek Orthodox neo-martyrs. It seeks to examine two aspects of Christian martyrdom in the Ottoman Empire. First, the methods and tactics used by the Turkish authorities as well as by the populace in their efforts to gain converts to Islam; and, second, the motives which led Christians to martyrdom.

But how reliable are our sources? Undoubtedly, in their recording of data, including events, names, places, and even chronologies the authors seem to be accurate and trustworthy. However, in their inferences and interpretation they appear to have been influenced by their own religious affiliation, their interests, and their biases. The nature of the sources, their simplicity and lack of sophistication do not provide evidence for extensive attention to the historical context within which the martyrdom occurred. Neither do we have enough ground to answer questions pertaining to economic, political, or social factors, which might have led to martyrdom. The available sources speak mostly in religious terms and emphasize the underlying existence of a conflict between Christianity and Islam.

Writing in the middle of the seventeenth century about the state of the Greek and Armenian Churches under Ottoman rule, Paul Ricaut, the British consul in Smyma, who travelled widely within the Ottoman Empire and became an astute observer of its religious and social scene, made several important observations which can be summarized as follows: first, the Turks expelled Christians from many of their churches, converting them to mosques; second, the "Mysteries of the Altar" were concealed in secret and dark places, vaults, and sepulchres, having their roofs almost levelled with the surface of the ground; third, many Christians turned "Mohametans" and many "flocked daily to the profession of Turkism"; and fourth, Christian priests, in the Eastern parts of Asia Minor especially, were forced to live with caution and officiate in obscurity and privacy, fearing the temper of the Turks. Ricaut adds that considering the oppression and contempt for the Greek Church, as well as the allurements, worldly pleasures, and privileges that Christians would enjoy by becoming Muslims, the stable perseverance of the Greek Church is a confirmation of God's presence "no less convincing than the miracles and power which attended the beginnings of the early church" (Ricaut, 1679/Ι970). Furthermore, he implies the existence of crypto-Christians and confirms the use of coercive methods, which the Turks employed to gain converts. Of course forcible conversions to Islam and the existence of crypto-Christians as well as neo-martyrs were not rare phenomena in the Greek and other provinces conquered by the Turks from as early as the last quarter of the eleventh century. This has been convincingly discussed and documented on the basis of Turkish, Greek, Near Eastern, and other sources by Professor Speros Vryonis in his monumental work on the decline and elimination of medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor (Vryonis, 1971)(4) Here we are concerned with events following the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

According to several accounts, from the conquest of Constantinople to the last phase of the Greek War of Independence, the Ottoman Turks condemned to death 11 Ecumenical Patriarchs of Constantinople, nearly 100 bishops, and several thousands of priests, deacons and monks (Bompolines, 1952; Paparounis, no date; Perantones, 1972; Pouqueville, 1824; Vaporis, 2000). It is impossible to say with certainty how many men of the cloth were forced to apostatise. Nevertheless, many preferred martyrdom to apostasy, and of the above thousands, several have been canonized and raised to sainthood by the Greek Orthodox Church.

In a brief but pioneering article in the English language about Eastern Orthodox neomartyrs, the leading Belgian hagiology expert Hippolyte Delehaye (1921)(5) wrote some 50 years ago that "the perfidy of the Turks knew no limits" and that they used ingenious and varied means to induce numerous Christians to convert to Islam. He added: "The martyrology of Christians of the Orient, who were victims of Mussulman
fanaticism, contains many interesting and often moving pages that may be compared to the venerable monuments of the history of ancient persecutions."

Delehaye relied on primary sources, which confirm that in the autocratic methods of rule, the Ottoman sultans and their allies, the Ullama, reduced non-Muslims in the status of dhimmitude, in strict subordination, enforceable by death. Exclusion from citizenship, which implied adoption of Islam, was a matter of pure survival. Α full life may only be lived if you believe rightly according to Islamic faith. In the light of this background, it is not too difficult to imagine that many Christians preferred to convert, while others preferred death rather than apostasy.

When Delehaye wrote his essay, the sources for the history of Greek Orthodox neo-martyrs were scattered and Iimited. Our knowledge about them is still conditioned
by the lack of critical editions of martyrologies and hagiographies, but we are now in a much better position to study this chapter of church history under Ottoman captivity. The recently published Lexicon of Neo-Martyrs provides a fully documented account of the life and martyrdom of a substantial number of Greek Orthodox Christians and sufficient evidence for the study of the methods and means used by the Turks for the conversion of Christians to Islam.

To be sure, there were political, economic and social motives, which contributed to apostasy from Christianity to Islam. All three motives are related to the organizational structure of the Ottoman state. Politically, any subject who desired to rise in the ruling class had to be either a nascent or a convert to Islam. Α certain number of Christians became Muslims because of political aspirations. Socially, non-Muslims were second-class citizens. Climbing the social ladder presupposed conversion to Islam. It is obvious that many became Muslims because of social considerations. Economic reasons might have been the most powerful of the motives for apostasy. The greatest economic burden, which was, placed upon the non-Muslim population, was the harac, a poll tax that reduced many to poverty. The Janissaries, the human levy imposed on every Christian family, were converted to Islam at an early age and are not included in any one of these three non­religious classifications. Even though the sources, both Greek and Western European, are silent on this point, it is conceivable that a number of Christians were converted to Islam on their own initiative. Islam's simple and direct monotheism, its unphilosophical theology, and its doctrine of predestination, as well as the sensuous promises of heaven, might have appealed especially to the simple-minded. But it is impossible to say how many were attracted to Islam and Tuτkization on purely intellectual, ethical, or emotional grounds. It is more logical to accept the view that since religious tradition is a very conservative element and holds its followers linked with the past; conversion on theological and intellectual bases must have been rather rare. It seems that many of those who professed Christianity only in name welcomed economic political, and social opportunities as well as other promises of Islam to make the change. This article assumes that most of the converts to Islam belong to one or more of these categories.

Ηowever, the martyrologies reveal that the Turks either adopted systematic schemes or exploited incidental occasions to entice Christians to their creed. Because of their ignorance of Islamic law, customs, behaviour, language, and tradition, many Christians found themselves before the courts for insignificant reasons and were given the choice either to apostatise or to face imprisonment or even death. Most of the 172 cases of the neo-martyrs confirm the validity of these observations.

Conversion to Islam as an alternative to torture and death was an inheritance from previous centuries, which can be traced back to early Islam. In the first quarter
of the eighth century; Caliphs such as Al-Walid Ι, Suleiman, Οmar II, and Yazid ΙI had adopted a policy which stressed either Ιslamization or death (Constantelos, 1972). As far as the Ottoman period is concerned (excluding the Seljukid centuries) the policy of conversion or death was applied soon after the Ottoman State's inception. For example, a certain Michael Pylles, a Greek from Ephesos who served as secretary in the court of Murad II, was accused of intrigue. He was mercilessly tortured but was given the choice of apostasy or death by burning. He chose to become a Muslim, as a result of which lie was set free, receiving both honours and material awards (Doukas, 1834).

Pylles was not an exception. The writings of the Turkish poet and prince Danishmend Ahmet Gazi, founder of one of the strongest Turkoman principalities in Eastern Turkey, indicate that conversion of Christians by the sword was common. In many instances prisoners as well as inhabitants of conquered territories were given the choice of either conversion or death. In the course of his campaign against the city of Comana, Malik Danishmend was determined either to convert the inhabitants or to massacre them. After the capture of Comana, the populace opted for conversion rather than extermination. The citizens of Euchaita faced the same dilemma. When Malik conquered the city, he offered its inhabitants the choice of death or Islamization. The same Turkish poet relates that in one city, nearly 5,000 people accepted Islam, while a similar number of its inhabitants were put to the sword (Melikoff, 1960).(6) Religion was not merely an expression of individual faith, but also a definition of human behaviour and a manifestation of the individual's place in the state. Thus Islamization meant Turkization. Α convert to Islam who decided to return to the Christian faith was perceived not only as an apostate but also as a traitor to the Ottoman state. Several neo-martyrs were put to death on suspicion of treason.

Legally, Ottoman rulers upheld the theory according to which "the people of the Book," Jews and Christians, as well as their religious institutions, were to be tolerated. However, the life of neo-martyrs confirms that the letter of the law did not restrain dervishes, ulemas, ordinary laymen, and even Caliphs from openly forcing conversions to Islam. The dichotomy between theoretical and legal provisions and actual practices is evident throughout the Ottoman era. Legal arguments were frequently ignored or became oblivious to historical realities. Turkish and other sources indicate that many ghazies were possessed with fervour for the conversion of Christians to their faith (Vryonis, 1971). Thus, in addition to economic social, and political allurements, the religious fanaticism, spite, vengeance, and missionary zeal of the Muslim Turks took a heavy toll of Christians who either converted or were martyred.
The French traveller to the Ottoman Empire, Antoine Galland, recorded in his calendar on September 2, 1674 the following episode:

Today the Turks did a perfidy to a young Greek who was tutored by a Turk. While he was tutored, some Mussulmans, who were nearby, handed over to the teacher a piece of paper with the Islamic creed of faith written on it. They asked the Turkish teacher to turn it over to his young student asking him to read it aloud. They wanted to learn for themselves whether the young Greek could read Turkish fluently. Unsuspicious of the trick, the youth read the paper aloud. No sooner had he finished than the Turks immediately seized him and took him before a judge. They testified that the Greek youth had read in their presence the Moslem creed, the Salabati; therefore, he was expected to become a Moslem. In protest the young man answered that he had been deceived and that he had no intention of changing his Christian faith: The judge ordered that the youth be put to torture. When he insisted on adhering to his faith, he was thrown into prison where he was kept for a month, refusing to apostatise. He must have been between the age of 18 and 20 when he was beheaded (Gatland, 1881).

The French traveller did not record the martyr's name but modern scholarship has identified him as the neo-martyr Nicholas of Karpenision, whose story has been reconstructed as follows:

At the age of fifteen Nicholas came to Constantinople with his father, where the latter opened a shop in Tachtakala. Α Muslim barber, their neighbour, at the request of the father, gave Nicholas lessons in Turkish. The Mussulman looked forward to leading his pupil to change his religion and communicated his plan to the soldiers who frequented his house. And together they hatched a plot. The barber transcribed the Salabati, a profession of the Islamic faith. When the young man presented himself for his lesson, in the presence of the soldiers, the barber placed the paper before him. Suspecting nothing, Nicholas began to read it. When he had reached the end, the soldiers cried: "you have become a Turk; you have pronounced the Salabati." Stupefied and indignant, Nicholas protested hotly: "Ι am a Christian and not a Turk. Ι read what my master gives me for my lesson." But he was dragged before the Caimacan. The fatal paper served as proof of the odious accusation. After a long imprisonment and all sorts of ill treatment Nicholas was condemned to death (Delehaye, 1921, p. 705; Perantones, 1972). He was beheaded on September 23, 1672. His martyrdom was recorded by a third person, De la Croix, secretary of the French Embassy in Constantinople (De La Croix 1695).

Turkish cunning and excuses in the conversion of Christians to Islam was observed by other foreign travellers to the Ottoman Empire. The Englishman Joseph Wolff relates that when a young man named Panagiotis, in his ignorance of Islamic law entered the Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem, some fanatic Turks grabbed him and brought him before the Pasha of Damascus as a defiler of the Islamic temple. The Pasha offered him the chance of becoming a Muslim in order to avoid death. Panagiotis remained steadfast to his Christian faith, and for that reason he was beheaded in the early nineteenth century (before 1838) (Wolff 1839).

When contrary to Turkish law, and for some economic to social purposes, a Christian dressed in the Turkish manner, even if he put on Turkish shoes or a red fez, he was forced to become a Muslim. Nicholas of Magnesia is an appropriate illustration. Counting on the good reputation of his father who was a supervisor of the estates of a prominent Agha, Nicholas, a young man of 22, engaged to get married, dressed well, put on Turkish shoes and a red fez, and went to the city. He was recognized by some Turks as a Christian, and he was reported to the judge as a violator of Turkish custom. The judge asked Nicholas whether his manner of dress indicated a desire to become a Muslim. When the young Christian refused to apostatise, he was beaten and finally was condemned to death on April 24, 1796 (Perantones, 1972, 3:404-06).
Sometimes even words, expressed by Christians in moments of anger, were exploited and used against them. For example, Onouphrios, the son of prosperous parents in the Greek Tyrnavos, when only eight or nine was scolded by his parents for some disobedience. In the moment of his humiliation and anger, Onouphrios cried out: "Ι will become a Turk" The Turks who heard of this seized the young boy and were ready to circumcise him. Because of his age, the parents were able to take him back. Onouphrios eventually fled to Mt. Athos where he became a monk. Nevertheless, he lived with a guilty conscience and was determined to cleanse himself of the impurity through martyrdom. It is not necessary to recount here the story of his life from his departure from Mt. Athos to his death. He was put to death by the Turks on January 4, 1818 (Delehaye, 1921, p. 208; Perantones,1972, 1:176-77).


3. - What follows is a revised version of my article "The neomartyrs as evidence for methods and motives leading to conversion and martyrdom in the Ottoman Empire" published in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, vol. XXII, No. 3-4 (1978), pp. 216-234. The most recent study on the neomartyrs in English is Nomikos Michael Vaporis, Witness for Christ (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press: Crestwood, NY, 2000). Vaporis covers the period between 1437 1860 and has identified a few of Albanian, Serbian, Romanian, Russian, Lebanese and Turkish origins.

4. - See pp. 340-43 and especially chapter five, pp. 351-402. See also F. W. Hasluck, Christianity and Islam under the Sultans, vol. 2 (Oxford, 1929), pp. 452-59.

5. - See Stanford J. Shaw, History of the Ottoman empire and modern Τurkey, vols. 1-2 (Cambridge, 1976), 1:19, 24. This is a history from a Turkish point of view. It is based on Turkish accounts.

6. - See pp. 257, 270, 280, 284, 380, 384, 414-416. See also Vryonis, pp. 176-178.

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