1162) Conversion Movements And Concept Of Tolerance In Bilateral Relations Between Turks And Armenians

Instructor Cengiz KARTIN
Atatürk’s Principles of Research and Implementation Center Erciyes University / Kayseri

In this article the relationships between Turks and Armenians are evaluated in the framework of the conversion movements by benefiting from documents from the Ottoman Archive and Kayseri judicial records. The word “conversion” whose origin is hüda (a right road, the way of salvation) means reaching the truth, finding the true way1. The concept . .
1 Ali Köse, “İhtida”, İslam Ansiklopedisi, Türkiye Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı Publication, Vol.21, p.554. The word conversion means choosing Islam while being a member of another religion or without a belief as a technical term. The person changing his religion after this choice is called deceived. Hayati Hökelekli, Din Psikolojisi, Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı Publication, Ankara 1993, p.290.

According to the Islam, the people are born with Islamic constitution so the conversion is accepted as the people’s return to their origins, not changing his religion. If we think the topic from this aspect, it is decided that the people converting remember his constitution and return it. When we consider the event by putting the individual at the centre -because it is a full change in individual’s religion-, the event is not fully different from the struggles among the nations in terms of the struggle the individual feels inside.

As opposed to the other religions, there are no complicated rules or written documents while converting. The only provision of converting is to accept the oneness of the God and that the Prophet Mohammed is the prophet of him. However, the

of “conversion” will only be evaluated with regard to the Armenians who converted to the Islam in the Ottoman society.

After the foundation of the Ottoman Empire and its regular governmental innovations, the societies belonging to different religions and nations had interacted and were influenced by the cultural and religious affairs of one another. Due to this interaction some Armenians converted to Islam of their own free will and fulfilled their duties concerning the religious rituals of Islam.

The coherence and the unity among these societies had many practical reasons. Firstly, the government’s objective policy and approach to the minorities and its own nation had been impartial; these societies had equal rights in every respect. The idea of justice and the socio-economic regulations of the Ottoman Empire had been also of significance in the bilateral interactions when compared to its contemporary western empires.

The bilateral relations between Turkish and Armenian societies were strengthened due to the coherent policies of the government. In this article, the role of the Ottoman Empire to the conversion movements of Armenians is going to be examined.

Because the conversion needs both a religious change and a change of conscience, the reasons for this change are as important as itself. When the subject is evaluated from the point of religious psychology, it is better to evaluate the reason in the frame of personal and social needs instead of assessing it from the point of religion abandoned or preferred. The causes of conversion movements can be listed as such:

point needed to be considered is that this acceptance has to be held in the place where two people are ready in present.

Islam has a different approach from the other religions because it is stated that Islam is supplement to other religions by not rejecting the others. We face this different approach as an important factor in spread of Islam. As opposed to the subjects of Christianity such as the doctrine of the trinity, the people’s being a sinner since they are born and the church’s role as an interventionist between the God and the person, the qualities of Islam such as the principle of clarity, no one between the God and the person, the system of morality, the principle of brotherhood, the life balancing the world and the next world are the important factors in conversion movements.

. The negative attitudes of religious functionaries in the religion from which they converted to another religion.
. The positive change of his thoughts towards the religion he will convert to with the increase of the person’s information and his experiences in life.

. The positive manners and behaviours of the people tied to the religion the others will convert to.
. Being affected by religious inspirations.

Being subjected to a shock influence.
. Domestic conflicts.
. The sense of sinfulness.
. Socio-cultural interaction2.

The socio-cultural interaction is the important point of Turkish and Armenian relations which is the main topic of our article.

The most important rule anyone among the non-Muslim people of the Ottoman Society, including Armenians, has to obey on condition that he will convert is the law formed by the Ottoman State about conversion.

The Ottoman State became an Empire after its foundation. A community structure including two or more nations was formed as a result of the Ottoman Empire’s conversion. The Ottoman Empire, taking the necessary measures for the structure to be continued and for the societies of the Ottoman State to live together, formed laws. The foundation of these laws was based on the principle not to force anyone to change his religion and to leave it to his own choice.

The expressions in the telegram sent to the governors of Vilayets of Edirne, Erzurum, Adana, Ankara, Aydın, Bitlis, Hüdavendigar3,

2 Köse, ibid, p.554.
3 Bursa. Bkz. Tuncer Baykara, Anadolu’nun Tarihi Coğrafyasına Giriş I, Anadolu’nun İdari Taksimatı, Türk Kültürünü Araştırma Enstitüsü Publication, Ankara 1988, p.109.

Diyarbakır, Sivas, Trabzon, Kastamonu, Konya, Mamuratü’l-Aziz4, Musul, Van and the governors of Sanjaks of Urfa, İzmit, Bolu, Canik5, Çatalca, Karesi6, Kala-i Sultaniye7, Menteşe, Tek, Kayseri, Karahisar-ı Sahib8, Eskişehir, İçel, Kütahya, Maraş, Niğde, Erzincan, dated November 3, 1908 states clearly that the the laws formed by the government about conversion were tolerance and free will.

The correction of the population record of the Armenian men and women below 20 as Armenian when the Armenian conversion was not accepted; and the correction of the men and women above 20 with the application and desire of them when it was understood that they are free to return to their original religion as delivered with telegraphs dated 21 October 1334 and 5 November 13349.

Although it is expressed in the telegram that the conversion of the Armenians below the age of 20 was not accepted, it also stated in the conversion records before that date that the conversion of the Armenians above the age of 20 were accepted on the condition that it was their own desire.

Under which conditions the conversion movements were not accepted was stated in the laws of the Ottoman State. A telegram sent from the Ministry of Domestic Affairs to the Governor of the Sanjak of Afyonkarahisar, dated November 25, 1915, states: “The acceptance of the conversion of the Armenian women whose mate is in military

4 Today it is called as Elazığ. Baykara, ibid, p.123; Erdal Açıkses, Yüzyıl Yıl Önce Mamuratü’l-Aziz (Harput, Elazığ)’da Eğitim ve Kültür Müesseseleri, Fırat Havzası’nın Sosyal Kültürel ve Ekonomik Kalkınması Sempozyumu, Fırat Havzası Araştırma Merkezi Publication, Elazığı 1988, p.4.
5 Today it is known the city of Samsun. Baykara, ibid, p.129; M. Emin Yolalıcı, 19. Yüzyılda Canik (Samsun) Sancağınını Sosyal ve Ekonomik Yapısı, TTK Publication, Ankara 1998, p.12.
6 Today it is known the city of Balıkesir. Baykara, ibid, p.129; Cemal Kutay, Milli Mücadele’de Devleşen Belde Balıkesir, Milli Mücadele’de Balıkesir, Türk Dünyası Araştırmaları Vakfı Publication, İstanbul 1990, p.16.
7 Today it is known the city of Çanakkale. Baykara, ibid, p.123.
8 Today it is known the city of Afyonkarahisar. Baykara, ibid, p.1129; Anadolu’nun Kilidi Afyon, Afyon Valiliği Publication, Afyon 2004, p.46.
9 The Prime Ministry Ottoman Archives (PMOA), DH.ŞFR., Document No:96/100.

service and who is alive is not permitted”10. Thus, that the conversions of the Armenian women whose mate was in military service and who was alive were not to be accepted was stated clearly during the time of war. The government prevented Armenian women from the idea of conversion during a difficult period, and this was important for the government to show that it didn’t have a policy in which it was benefiting from the difficult conditions of the people or using the decisions they could take under these situations for itself. Besides this, it shows that the government assured that the women who might feel depressed for not having their husbands could make their decisions later under more suitable conditions and that it had no intention to benefit from their situations. This also shows that marriage was also an important factor in the conversion movements.

There are some other conditions in which the marriage is important in the conversion movements. Armenian girls wanting to marry Muslim boys, even if there is no force, generally changed their religion before or after marriage and became Muslims. It is possible for us to come across some examples about the topic in the archive documents. For example, we can see in the document dated May 2, 1911 that an Armenian girl who was about 17, living in Hasanbeyli village of Adana near Bağçe district, and lost her mother and father when she was very young got acquainted with a Muslim boy whose name was Köroğlu Ahmet and then converted to Islam freely and married him11.

Although the conversion and marriage were held with the girl’s own consent, the Ottoman Empire felt the necessity of learning if the situation was as reported. The boy Köroğlu Ahmet brought the girl to Karacaviran, which was his village, from Adana after they got married. After the event was reported, the Armenian girl was taken to the main office of the district by the jobholders to cross-examine. It was understood after receiving her statement that the girl did all the things with her own consent. She was named Ayşe, changing her previous name, and she was pleased with her husband and her new situation12.

10 PMOA, DH.ŞFR., Document No:58/146.
11 PMOA, DH.MUİ., Document No:14-2/7.
12 PMOA, DH.MUİ., Document No:14-2/7.

The conversion movements did not always lead to positive results for marriages. Changes in religion sometimes caused the marriages to end even if the marriages were held with consent. It is possible to see the example of this in another Ottoman document. An Armenian girl called Meryem, living on the Kocanaib Street in Bursa, became a Muslim by changing her religion. However, a court order ended her engagement an Armenian boy. When her fiance changed his religion of his own desire 45 days later and became a Muslim, their engagement was renewed immediately13.

As seen from the examples above, another important rule of the Ottoman Empire about changing one’s religion, from both the State and the people, is not to force people or put pressure on them. There were a lot of conversions taking place during the reign of the Ottoman Empire for 600 years and nearly no force or pressure was seen in these conversions. Furthermore, the Ottoman Empire took measures because it did not want any events like this to come to light.

The Armenians changing their religion and converting to Islam with their own consent, both women and men, were treated with compassion by the government so as not to suffer after this event. The government provided them with the possibilities to work in government offices to help them to sustain their lives as before. For example, the Archbishop of Sis14 Monastery was among the ones who benefited from this policy. After the Archbishop changed his religion, a house was rented for him and he was given work in the Press Association without a delay in his salary because he knew the Armenian language15.

The government not only assisted the people who changed their religion by offering government jobs because their talents and qualities could be beneficial for the government, the government also assisted the people who converted for other reasons. For example, the documents were given to a poor house for the living of the women called Fatma 13 Osman Çetin, Sicillere Göre Bursa’da İhtida Hareketleri ve Sosyal Sonuçları (1472-1909), TTK Publication, Ankara 1994, p.67.

14 Today it is known as Kozan.
15 PMOA, DH.MKT., Document No:1531/104.

who had been a Christian Armenian but then converted to Muslim and to register her son in a boarding school16.

It was not only the government who assisted the Armenians changing their religion. The Muslim people of the Empire also took assisting these people as a duty when they were under difficult conditions.

Furthermore, the Muslims requested aid from the State in the name of the people converting by informing them about the difficult conditions of the Armenians when the powers of people who wants to help Armenians, was not enough. As a result of this, three Armenian orphans who converted were taken under the protection of Dervish Ahmet. However, the Master Ahmet had some difficulty in meeting the educational and maintenance needs of the children, and he requested assistance from the State. He requested in his petition for the three orphans to be registered in the primary school of emigrants’ orphanage. In response to this petition, the State made the decision that these three Armenian orphans should be placed in boarding school because the school belonged to emigrant orphans17.

As is seen in the examples above, one of the rules generally obeyed, even if it is not stated in the provisions of the conversion, is that the Armenians did not use their previous names and instead were called by Turkish names which are suitable to Islam. The following are some more examples: an Armenian imprisoned because of kidnapping a woman by force was called Emin after converting to Islam18, an Armenian converting to Islam after his wife’s conversion in Bursa was called Mustafa19, a woman going to Karacaviran village by marrying her lover in Adana was called Ayşe by changing her religion20, the Armenian whose name was Vansin who was living in Portan district of Adana was called Hatice after the conversion21, the person whose name was Selver was called Ali by chang-

16 PMOA, DH.ŞFR., Document No:15-1/5.
17 PMOA, DH.MKT., Document No:1503/100.
18 PMOA, DH.MKT., Document No:1453/35.
19 Çetin, ibid, p.67.
20 PMOA, DH.MUİ., Document No:14-2/7.
21 PMOA, DH.MKT., Document No:1475/4.

ing his religion in the Uzunlu village of Bozak district22, the Armenian whose name was Hektorin who was living in Bozak was called Mustafa with his conversion to Islam23, the Armenian whose name was Bogos who converted when he was a guest in Kayseri and was from Antep was called Ahmet24, the Armenian whose name was Arzaman from Tomarza was called Mustafa25 by changing his religion.

Although the archive documents demonstrate clearly that the conversions among Armenians were done willingly, the western countries have confronted the Ottoman State with opposite claims since the second part of 19th century. The Armenian Patriarchate sometimes supported these claims. Furthermore, the Patriarchate claimed that some conversions were carried out with the force of the Ottoman Empire, and it sometimes applied to the directors of the ministry of interiors for these activities to be stopped. As it was underlined above, the Ottoman Empire stated clearly in all of its applications that it was against changing religion by force and it made a law to prevent these kinds of events. The reason for focusing on the need for a person to express that he converted to Islam willingly before the Canonical Court of Justice and any foreign ambassador is this according to the record of conversion.

When the western countries complained about the conversions, the State often informed the governers and Muslim people about the events and ordered the necessary directors of the government to investigate the claims. For example, when it was reported to the Russian Embassy and the Armenian Patriarchate in 1887 that an Armenian girl who was a citizen in Russia and living in Baghdad with her mother was kidnapped by force to be converted, the Embassy and the Patriarchate reported it to 22 Tufan Gündüz, 165 Numaralı Kayseri Şer’iye Sicili, Yayınlanmamış Yüksek Lisans Tezi, (Unpublished MA Thesis), Erciyes Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü, Kayseri, p.44.

23 İlyas Gökhan, 191 Numaralı Kayseri Şer’iye Sicili H.1236–1237 (M.1820–1822), (Unpublished MA Thesis), Erciyes Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü, Kayseri 1994, p.52.
24 Gündüz, ibid, p.44.
25 Songül Caner, 138 Numaralı Kayseri Şer’iye Sicili H.1161–1162 (M.1748–1749), (Unpublished MA Thesis), Erciyes Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü, Kayseri 1997, p.155.

the Ottoman Empire. When the government investigated the event, they found there was no force and the girl converted to Islam willingly26. When the western countries increased their claims towards the end of 19th century that force was used in conversions, the Ottoman State sought to determine whether the claims were true or not by setting up commissions to investigate them.

That about 900 Armenians27 converted in Birecik in 1896 attracted the attention of the foreign governments because of the greatness of population and that the Ottoman State converted them by force became a new issue. Then, the Ottoman State set up a commission to research the subject. However, the Englishman Fitzmorris also took part in the commission. He asked if the conversions were done by force by talking with the Armenians. During the investigations all of the responses he got explained that the Ottoman State did not do it by force28.

It was claimed at the beginning of 1898 that the Catholic and Protestant Armenians living in Birecik at the time of Birecik event29 converted by force, the Ottoman State made a decision about setting up an investigation commission including an agent from each of the western countries complaining and making the necessary research30.

The conversion movements of the Armenians had a different aspect from the point of view of number of people who converted in the frame of the Ottoman Empire’s rules. The conversions were sometimes held individually and sometimes in groups. We often noted that the conversions were held individually. However, we rarely found that conversions were held in groups. One such example is the conversion movement in Birecik in 1896. In this event, Catholic and Protestant Armenians living in nearly 200 homes converted to Islam as a group31.

26 PMOA, DH.MKT., Document No:1420/47, 1382/47.
27 All these Armenians were living in 200 houses.
28 PMOA, DH.YEE., Document No:49/61.
29 An Armenian rebellion broke out in Birecik in 1898.
30 PMOA, DH.YEE., Document No:50/46.
31 PMOA, DH.YEE., Document No:49/61.

We also found that whole families changed their religion as a group during the conversion movements. For example, an Armenian called Isador, who was living in Tavlusun village of Kayseri, converted to Islam with his sons called Agop and Kirkor. While Isador was called Mehmet, his sons accepted the names of Ahmet and Mustafa32. The same situation occurred when an Armenian living in Küste was called Ali by changing his religion and also called his four-month son Ali33.

Another important part of these movements among the Armenians is that we were able to find some Armenian and Christian religious functionaries changing their religions during some periods. For example, Master Episkopos Artin who was in the Antakya and Payas Armenian Delegation in 1888 changed his name when he converted calling himself Mehmet Emin34.

Furthermore, it is possible to see some events showing that the Armenians converting to Islam did not always persist with their decisions and returned to their previous religion. For example, an Armenian woman named Elizabeth made a decision to return her previous religion as a result of her conversation with Armenian religious functionary, the Priest Andon. She also explains clearly that she returned to her previous religion willingly, not by force35. The woman called Gülizar living in Yenice village of Bursa among the Armenians also abandoning her belief in Islam and returned to her previous religion and settled in Gedik Pahsa district in Istanbul36.

The Ottoman Empire did not use any force on the Armenians converting to Islam by abandoning their belief in their previous religion and in the same way it did not exert pressure on the Armenians returning to their previous religion by abandoning their belief in Islam. The government did not penalize the people legally for their not persevering with their decisions.

32 Gündüz, İbid, p.45.
33 A. Afşin Ünal, 92 Numaralı Kayseri Şer’iye Sicili H.1095 (M.1684), (Unpublished MA Thesis), Erciyes Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü, Kayseri 1994, p.49.
34 PMOA, DH.ŞFR., Document No:1107/8661.
35 PMOA, DH.EUM., Document No:30/78.
36 PMOA, DH.MÜT., Document No:49-2/7.


In conclusion, although the Armenians in Ottoman society made both individual and group conversions without being pressured or forced by the government, the western countries claimed towards the 19th century that these conversions were made under pressure from the State. As it is seen in this article the Ottoman Empire sets up various commissions when it heard these claims and also made the representatives of western countries take part in these commissions. As a result of the studies, the western countries had to confirm that these conversions were held willingly. Besides this, the people requesting to return their previous religions changed willingly whenever they wanted. The reason this could occur is the tolerance the Ottoman Empire showed towards the people under its authority


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