The Role of Missionaries in the Destruction of Religious Unity of Armenians

Firstly Catholic and then Protestant missionaries worked on Ottoman Christians and caused the creation of new communities. The community which the missionaries influenced the most was Armenians. The Archaic Gregorian Armenian community went through a great change with the influence of missionaries; Catholic and Protestant Armenian communities appeared and the idea of nationalism spread. However, the first result of this change is not that Armenians got influenced by nationalism and attempted separatist activities. The first result is that the Armenian community got fragmented inside and went through internal conflicts.

Catholic priests in Istanbul increased their missionary activities to make Armenians become Catholics starting from the beginning of the 17th century and this created displeasure within the community. When the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul, in the period of Murat IV, complained that Catholic missionaries brought Armenians to other churches, the churches where Armenians who changed their sects were gathering were closed down (Kılıç, 2001: 728). Especially Zaharya, who was the Armenian Patriarch between the years 1773-1799, had a very harsh attitude against Catholics. Patriarch Zaharya pressured Catholic Armenians, not only in Istanbul, but also in other regions of the country. For instance, he did not allow the bodies of Catholic Armenians living in Cyprus to be buried in Armenian graveyards and ordered the local church administration about the burial of these people. Zaharya applied to the government and demanded that Armenian priests were not forced to do the burial of these people (Türkan, 2012b: 30).

The attitude of the Patriarchate against Catholic Armenians did not change in 19th century. Many Catholic Armenians were exiled from Istanbul upon the request of the Patriarch in 1828. After France, who was the protector of Catholics intervened in the matter, they were able to return to Istanbul (Türkan, 2012b: 36). When the French pressure came upon the attitude of the Ottoman Empire’s protecting the Gregorian Armenian church and preventing the activities of Catholics, a separate nation status was given to Catholics in 1830. However, this situation brought conflict not only to Catholic and Gregorian Armenians, but also within Catholic Armenians and many groups appeared from various churches. In short, the Armenian community became fragmented (Türkan, 2012a: 322 vd.). Gregorian and Catholic Armenians often fell in conflict in matters such as taxes, graveyards and population census (Türkan, 2012b: 36-37).

The activities of making Armenians become Protestants, based on USA and Britain, brought a greater and more effective destruction in Armenian unity. The Protestant movement, which completed its organization from Istanbul to Jerusalem in a short while, achieved to win a certain mass in a short time. With the initiation of Britain, Protestant Armenians gained the status of “millet” (nation) with the declaration of Sultan Abdulmecid on 27 November 1857. A Muslim deputy and a priest for spiritual works were appointed to the Protestants who separated from the Gregorian church. With the appointment of a patriarch as a leader to them after the Crimean War, the organization of the Protestant millet was completed (Çetin, 2009: 466). Thus, the Armenian community was divided into three pieces: Gregorian, Catholic and Protestant.

The first reaction against Protestant missionaries came from the Gregorian Patriarchate fearing a decrease in his population. The Patriarchate asked for the names of the students attending Protestant schools and their parents and declared that these people would be imprisoned. He also gave the death penalty to Armenians accepting Protestantism (Kılıç, 2000: 166-167). Illegal religious discussions of Protestants with the Patriarchate were more in comparison to the Catholics. Protestant perspective towards the Bible and clergy is quite different. Protestant Armenians claimed that the church abstracted itself from the Holy Book and pushed it into the background, and criticized the theology, services and understanding of the religion of the church. The Patriarchate, on the other hand, tried to prevent the conversion of sects by isolating Protestant Armenians from social life. They marked the doors of the houses of Protestants and forbade speaking, greeting and shopping with them. Protestants could not baptize their children, get young people married and live in the same neighbourhood with Gregorian Armenians (Türkan, 2012b: 43-44).

The more the number of Protestant Armenians increased, the more the pressure of the Patriarchate intensified and the conflicts between Gregorian and Protestant Armenians became more tense. In 1845, Protestants in Trabzon were removed from their houses and a deceased Protestant was not allowed to be buried in an Armenian graveyard and was buried in a land belonging to Turks. Patriarch Çamurciyan ostracised Protestant Armenians from the church (Çetin, 2009: 469-470).

As a response to this attitude by Gregorian Armenians, Protestant Armenians approached Britain. Britain regarded protecting Protestants through both its ambassador in Istanbul and consuls all around the country, and conveying their complaints to the Supreme Port as one of their most significant duties. For example, the British Consul in Aleppo in 1851 informed that Protestant Armenians in Hessale village, which is situated between Antakya and Lazkiye, were exposed to maltreatment by other Armenians. British Vice Consul of Tarsus pointed out that some Protestant Armenians in Adana and Tarsus were arrested without any reason with the influence of Gregorian Armenians; he intervened to save them, but he was ineffective and asked for some authorities including the Tarsus governor to be warned (Osmanlı Belgelerinde Ermeni İngiliz İlişkileri, I, 2004: 3-7).

Protestant missionary activities not only led to the hostility of Gregorian Armenians, but also caused some people to get close to the Catholic Church. The first Catholic church in the Adıyaman region was founded when 70 Armenians who were not able to prevent the activities of American Protestants accepted Catholicism as a reaction. Catholic churches started to function in nearby villages and towns then. By 1894, there were four Catholic churches in Adıyaman (Dalyan-Yıldız, 2010: 76-77).

Another result of missionary activities meant for Armenians is secularization. Thanks to missionaries, the communication of Armenians with the west got easier and a new Armenian generation who studied in missionary schools and abroad appeared. This generation pioneered the two schools in contradiction with each other known as Darkness and Enlightenment (Enlightened). The Enlightened was a secular group and was supported by Britain. Through these, the Armenian Patriarchate became partly secular and the clergy lost their strength. With the secularization, nationalism increased its influence (Çetin, 2009: 470-471).

Consequently, the first effect of both Catholic and Protestant missionary activities on the Armenian community was internal conflicts. The Armenian community became fragmented and went through many problems within themselves. Nationalism and the spread of separatist ideas among Armenians were the later results of these missionary activities.


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