The biggest intra-community conflicts and problems in the history of the Ottoman Armenians were experienced because of the conversions to other denominations. The first thing that comes to mind when one mentions converting to a different denomination wihtin the Armenian community is the acceptance of the Catholic faith and the conflicts that were experienced because of that. Many bloody incidents, executions, and exiles were experienced during these conflicts, which spread over a time period of more than two centuries. The peak of the events was reached during the reign of Sultan Mahmud II and many notable Armenians were exiled because of the conflict between those Armenians who converted to the Catholic faith and did not give up their faiths and the Armenians who were affiliated with the main church. All of the Catholic Armenians were exiled to Anatolia and rebellions and executions were experienced.
Before the solution of this problem and the recognition of the Catholic Armenians as a separate community, a new conversion movement, namely the process of converting to the Protestant faith started. The meeting of the Armenians with Protestant missonaries and the Protestant faith started in the 1820s. An American Protestant missionary named Parsan, who started making propaganda among the Christians in the Middle East, was partially successful and after a short while, one started to come across Protestant Armenians in the Middle East. Even a bishop named Agapos of Kırshehir, who was one of the clerics who was afiliated with the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and a priest named Dionisios Garabedyan went to Beirut, accepted the Protestant faith and got married there in contradiction with the traditions of the Armenian Church (Tuğlacı, 313).
The beginning of the systemic protestant missionary activities took place in 1831. The prioritized objective of names such as William Goodell, Emil Smith and Dwight, who came to Istanbul with their families and settled there, was to engage in activities among the Armenians and Greeks in the city. However, later on, they saw that the Armenians were more inclined and prone to convert to the Protestant faith and they carried out their work mostly in this area (Arpee, 93). In 1832, a Jewish misson was established under the leadership of William Schauffler. By 1856, the Protestant missions had to be divided into two parts, North and South, because the mission work had expanded (Artinian, 54).
The work area in which the Protestant missionary activities were most successful was education. In 1834, a missionary school was established in Beyoğlu. Since education at this school was free, it turned into a center which the Armenian students who were affiliated with the main church preferred as well. In 1840, the school that was administered by Cyrus Hamlin was moved to Bebek and continued its work. Among the goals of the missionary school was to educate local clerics and new missonaries in addition to general education. Furthermore, a Protestant Armenian girls’ boarding school was established in Haskoy, which was one of the neighborhoods where the Armenian community was most dense and where the community life was experienced most intensely. In this school a strict religious education was provided, the girls were educated according to Protestant morality and the girls were educated to be religious, well-mannered, and educated spouses for the clerics, teachers, and civilians of the future to help them in their missions. As a matter of fact, three fourths of the girls who were affiliated with the main church and educated at this school converted to the Protestant faith (Artinian, 54).
In addition to the schools in Istanbul, the Protestants built schools in various cities of Anatolia in a short amount of time. The Getronagan high school in Antep, the Yeprad school in Harput, the Anatolia high school in Merzifon, and the schools of higher education in Tarsus were only some of these. They had literacy books and lessons that they had others prepare and they also published many books on various subjects. In addition, in 1839 they published a newspaper named Isdemaran Bidani Kidelyats, i.e. The Warehouse of Necessary Information, and they published a weekly journal named Avedaper, i.e. Harbinger, in 1885 (Tuğlacı, 315).
The Protestants played a really significant role in the cultural and educational life of the Armenians. William Goodell, who knew both Armenian and Turkish very well, translated the Bible into Turkish so that it could be more understandable and could spread to larger masses, and it was published in Turkish with Armenian letters in 1858 (Tuğlacı, 313). These works of Goodell and the modern education that was provided at the Protestant schools started a trend of simplification of the language and the spreading of modern education among the Armenians who were affiliated with the main church. However, the religious education that was provided at the Protestant schools was contrary to the doctrines that were taught in the Armenian Church. The Protestant doctrine clearly viewed the rites of the church that had been continuing for centuries, its belief in the saints and its doctrines as false and they made propaganda to the Armenian students accordingly (Berberyan, 296-297).
Therefore, the Armenian Church and the Armenian clerics were against the Protestant missionaries and their work from the very beginning. In 1837, Patriarch Isdepanos Aghavni Zakaryan ordered those Armenians who sent their children to Protestant schools to remove them from those schools. In 1839, again Patriarch Isdepanos issued a written order and banned participating in any Protestant activity in any form and having relations with the Protestants. After this written order, those who kept secrets about the Protestants and those who helped them were punished in various ways. Many tradesmen were evicted from their homes and dismissed from their professions (Berberyan, 265-269). The subsequent Patriarch Hagapos also pursued the same policy vis-à-vis the Protestants. He banned converting to another denomination and he exiled those clerics, whom he thought to be inclined to Protestanism, to Kayseri. Matteos Chuhajiyan, who was the Istanbul Armenian Patriarch between the years 1844-1848, had research conducted when he became the Patriarch and he saw that hundreds of people were living as secret Protestants in Istanbul. He tried to give them advice first to make them return to the main church. He had discussions that were open to the public organized between the Armenian clerics and the Protestant Missionaries. He sent the Armenian clerics who were preaching the Protestant faith written advice for them to return to the main church (Tuğlacı, 314-316). However, Patriarch Matteos failed in this path and he started to adopt a harsher attitude because of the impact of the high ranking Armenian clerics. In 1846, the Patriarch demanded from the Protestants to sign a written declaration of faith composed of nine articles to announce that they had returned to the main church. Those who refused to sign this declaration were excommunicated by the Patriarchate and all of their property was confiscated. The debts of those who owed money to the Protestants were erased by the Patriarchate. The debts of those who had receivables from the Protestans were collected rapidly (Artinian, 55). Those clerics who were preaching the Protestant faith in the provinces were dismissed by the Patriarchate. This reaction by the Patriarchate was protested swiftly by the British envoy Sir Canning, American envoy B. Cary, and Prussian envoy Baron le Coque. Even a special meeting was organized between the Patriarch and the British envoy (Tuğlacı, 316).
Despite all of this pressure from the Patriarchate, the Protestant community continued its activities and continued to expand. Forty Armenian Protestants, who got together in 1846, established the first Protestant Armenian Church in Istanbul. In addition, Armenian Protestant churches started to be established in Izmit, Adapazarı, and Trabzon as well. In 1846, when the Patriarch Matteos issued a written excommunication, the Armenian Protestant population was more than a thousand (Arpee, 269). The Protestant community, which was expanding rapidly, established its churches in Erzurum in 1847 and in Antep and Bursa in 1848. In addition to the work of the community and the pressures from the Armenian Patriarchate, the British Empire and America also made attempts at the Ottoman palace so that the Protestant community would be officially recognized and would be accepted as a separate community and they applied various pressures. Especially the British Envoy Sir Stratford Canning, who was known to be influential on the Sultan Abdulmajid and who was among the prominent names of the period, made attempts to convince the sultan using all of his influence (Artinian, 55) .
Finally, in November 1859, Sultan Abdulmajid issued an edict regarding the Protestant Armenian community being recognized as an independent community that is free with regards to its internal affairs like the other communities (For the whole text of the edict see Tuğlacı, 371-372). However, there was no heavy influence and leadership of the clerics in the Protestant Armenian community as there was in the other communities. A civilian name undertook the leadership of the community. After Sultan Abdulmajid recognized the Protestants as a separate community, the leadership of the community was undertaken firstly by Isdepan Agha Seropyan, who was the brother of Patriarch Hagapos Seropyan of Balat, who had banned converting to a different denomination and exiled those clerics who had preached the Protestant faith (Tuğlacı, 315).
The Protestants, whose population reached eight thousand in the whole of the Empire, were able to continue their education in European and American universities and they could be protected by the diplomatic immunity of those countries through the embassies that protected them (Bournoutian, 148). After it was recognized, the Protestant community developed quickly and while they had fifteen churches in 1854, they doubled that number in a short amount of time, by the year 1859.
In 1854, the American Foreign Missions Board sent a short but effective regulation, which was a summary of the American Protestant Church by-law in order to organize the administration of the Protestants in the Ottoman Empire, to organize the publication and education activities and the financial administration of the comunity (For the text of this regulation see Artinian, 142-44). The Armenian Protestant community obtained permission to establish an executive committee and a people’s committee to administer the community. After the government gave a positive response to this request, they started to ensure the administration of the community within the framework of this regulation and through an assembly (Artinian, 56).
The administration of the Protestant church by civilians and according to certain rules affected the other Armenian churches to a large extent. As a result of this, the Catholic Armenian community prepared a regulation composed of twelve articles and issued it. Especially, this situation became an inspiration for the Young Armenians, who wanted to do something to transform the community in the main church. Hagop Girjikyan, who was the advisor of Mustafa Rashid Pasha, indicated the Protestants as an example to the prominent members of the Young Armenians and advised them to prepare a constitution for the administration of the community and the path that led to “Nizamname-i Millet-i Ermenyan” (Regulation of the Armenian Nation) in 1863 started in this way (Davison, 128-129).
The Protestant Armenian community, which had five churches in Istanbul throughout history, used the Latin Cemetery in Pangalti as their cemetery. Until the declaration the Republic, the community was represented by a total of seven leaders and after the declaration of the Republic, it also lost this quality of symbolic representation (Tuğlacı, 315).
Arpee, Leon. (1909). The Armenian Awakening: A History of the Armenian Church. Chicago.Artinian, Vartan. (2004). Osmanlı Devleti’nde Ermeni Anayasası’nın Doğuşu. İstanbul: Aras Yay.
Berberyan, Avedis. (1871). Badmutyun Hayots. İstanbul.
Bournoutian, George A. (2011). Ermeni Tarihi. Enver Abadoğlu, Ohannes Kılıçdağı (Çev.). İstanbul: Aras Yay.
Davison, Roderic H. (2005). Osmanlı İmparatorluğunda Reform. Osman Akınhay. (Çev.) 2005: Agora Kitaplığı.
Tuğlacı, Pars. (1991). İstanbul Ermeni Kiliseleri. İstanbul.