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The Catholics in the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East

Giovanni Sale, SJ - Le Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, Mar 6th 2023

The Catholics in the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East

The Middle East policy of the Italian government

For centuries the interests of the Latin Catholics living in the Ottoman Empire – this year is the 100th anniversary of its fall, a fate decided by the victors in the First World War – had been protected at the Sublime Porte by the representative of France. This right originally had its basis in the “Capitulations,” agreements of a politico-commercial nature that soon opened up to the protection of individuals or individual communities residing in the Empire. Only in 1740 did the Sultan grant France a capitular regime, which also provided for the protection of all Latin Catholics – designated simply as “Franks” – belonging to every nationality and, in particular, the traditional custodians of the Holy Places. This privilege was substantially reconfirmed, but only on condition that it did not prejudice the interests of the other European countries in the Ottoman Empire recognized by article 62 of the Treaty of Berlin of 1878.[1]

This position of pre-eminence and prestige accorded, or rather reconfirmed, by the Sublime Porte to the French representatives was perceived by the Italian political leadership – in the years in which Italy, recently unified, was trying to enter the sphere  of the European nations and to find its own space and influence in questions of international politics – with ill-concealed annoyance. The conquest of Tunisia in 1881 by the French  reinforced in  Italians a feeling of hostility toward their transalpine cousins.

France, as expected, was expanding in the Mediterranean, to the detriment of Italy, in territories that were not only close to its natural borders, but also densely inhabited by Italian citizens. According to the Italian ambassador to the Sublime Porte, Obizzo Malaspina, the Italians living in the Ottoman Empire in 1902 numbered about 25,000; by the end of the 19th century this number would have increased by about 10,000. Most of them lived in Istanbul, in the Genoese quarter of Galata-Pera (about 14,000), and in the other port cities of Smyrna (present-day Izmir), Salonica and Adana.[2]

Many politicians in the  Catholic world, even the liberal ones, in those years proposed to the ruling élites they develop, as France had been doing for some time, a policy of cultural penetration into the Middle East, using the religious element and, in particular, the missionary one. In fact, most of the missionaries in the Catholic communities of the Middle East were Italian, starting with the Franciscans in the localities  within the Custody of the Holy Land.

The pastoral and charitable action of these missionaries, who managed schools and other social works of a certain prestige, favored the spread of Italian culture and language. It should also be mentioned that the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Apostolic Delegate were Italian, and that almost all the religious Congregations – both the traditional (Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits) and more recent Congregations that had increased during the 19th century – had their mother house and their training institutes in Rome.[3]

The opportunities that were offered to Italy to exploit the network of presences and relationships of the Catholic Church in the Ottoman Empire were therefore many, but it was not easy to take advantage of them for various reasons. First of all there was the conflict that still existed between the Holy See and the Italian government and the way in which the process of national unification had been carried forward – from the suppression of the Papal States to the anti-clerical laws of Piedmont, subsequently confirmed and spread throughout the country, the new Kingdom of Italy – and also because of the so-called “Roman Question,” which was still unresolved.

Moreover, the Crispi government made this relationship even more difficult, exacerbating the clash with the Holy See and viewing with distrust and hostility the actions of the Catholic Church in the Middle East. In fact, Crispi, who was very sensitive to the project of Italian cultural penetration into the Mediterranean basin, where the great Roman culture had once established itself, had promoted the foundation of Italian schools – run by lay people and financed by the government – in the territories of the Sultan. In fact, these schools were created in opposition to those of the priests and to contrast with  the Catholic presence in those regions.

This policy, which also attracted the attention of the French, interested in the Italian experiment, turned out, predictably, to be a complete failure. A report sent to his government by the French consul in Smyrna is informative: “The experience has yielded  such disastrous results that it can be predicted that any initiative made to implant secular schools in the East would most likely fail. The money was spent lavishly, the teachers well chosen, the pupils received with care […], but, in spite of everything, the East, fundamentally religious, showed itself refractory to the offers made to it.”[4] Families, the consul reported, continued to send their children to the French-speaking Catholic schools.

The Crispi era having ended, those responsible for Italian foreign policy, also considering the French example, matured the idea of using the missionary presence, very strong and influential in the capitals of the Ottoman Empire, to encourage the Italian presence in those regions. This idea was well received by large sectors of national public opinion and also by “conciliatorist” and liberal Catholics, who saw in such a choice a possibility of encounter between the aspirations of the Catholic world and those of the new unitary state.

Already in 1893 the Italian consul in Beirut, in a dispatch addressed to the Foreign Ministry, suggested using the missionaries for effective Italian penetration in the region: “It is not a matter,” he wrote, “of waging war on French influence, but of not letting our legitimate and healthy influences die […]. Now the Franciscans who work there intend to open Italian schools, it is therefore in our interest to support them and help them in this.” Therefore he hoped “that it would not be allowed, as happened in Tunisia, that they be removed from Syria with manifest damage to Italy.”[5]

On the part of the Franciscans there was full willingness to collaborate with the Italian authorities, “as long as,” the consul continued, “they were left a prudent autonomy,” in particular in the choice of texts and in the method of teaching to apply in their schools. These considerations were received in Rome with great interest and read with sufficient realism.  This meant that the political climate had changed and, above all, that “Middle Eastern issues” were being looked at with new eyes, without prejudice of any kind and without the hindrance of useless anticlerical skirmishes.

The Italian missions in the Middle East and the Franco-Italian agreement of 1905

The failure of Crispi’s lay schools in the Middle East convinced the Italian leadership to change orientation and strengthen ties with the missionaries of the motherland living in the Ottoman Empire. In this changed political climate, the National Association for the Relief of Italian Missionaries Abroad was founded. It took over most of the schools run by lay people and proposed to the Italian missionaries that they take over their management entirely. Let us remember that the Association was not very well liked by the Vatican authorities, in particular by the Prefect of Propaganda Fide, Cardinal Girolamo Maria Gotti, who feared that the project would upset France, which for centuries had exercised a protectorate over Catholics in the lands of the Sultan. In any case, more than anything else, the anti-liberal prejudice and the events connected with the unresolved “Roman Question” weighed heavily on the Church of that period. Leo XIII himself wanted no innovation in this area.

In spite of this, in the last years of the 19th century, a slow but decisive process of rapprochement between missionaries and local Italian authorities began in the mission lands. The newer religious Congregations, not linked to the earlier experiences of protectorate, had no difficulty in accepting the proposal made to them by the Italian representatives and willingly accepted protection from them. The Salesians willingly took up the request to take over the secular schools and any other work that could do good, as did the Sisters of Ivrea. Particularly active was the superior of the community of Smyrna, who, not having obtained permission from Propaganda Fide to accept the management of an Italian secular school, went personally to the new pope, Pius X, who welcomed her and supported her in her courageous project.

Vittorio Ianari, who has studied the matter from diplomatic sources, writes that at the beginning of the 20th century “Italian pressure to obtain greater control over the missionaries became more intense. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs religious issues in the Turkish empire were closely followed.”[6] In fact, the government in Rome intervened directly on the occasion of the murder of an Italian missionary in Palestine (1902), asking to be a party in the trial that was set up. Moreover, it made its influence felt in the clashes that took place that same year in Jerusalem, in the square in front of the Holy Sepulcher, between Greek Orthodox and Franciscans, defending the Italian friars involved in the affair.[7]

In short, the question of the presence of Catholic missionaries in the Middle East, and in particular in the Holy Land, no longer represented for Italian diplomacy a secondary issue or one “extraneous” to its own competence (as Crispi and other anti-clerical liberals had thought), but an element that deserved to be followed closely and discussed again in negotiations with France, especially since in recent times relations between the two States had improved considerably.[8] In May 1902 the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Giulio Prinetti, confirmed to the French ambassador that the Italian government recognized France’s right of protectorate over religious communities, as established in Article 62 of the Treaty of Berlin, but that it could not disregard the protection due to religious of Italian nationality.

The crisis that had in the meantime occurred between France and the Holy See following the rejection  by the French government of the Concordat with the Holy See and the subsequent break in diplomatic relations (1904) had inevitable repercussions also on the system of protection and on its Middle East policy. This greatly worried the government in Paris, which, although anticlerical, had no intention of renouncing its ancient right to protect Catholics resident in the territories of the Sultan.[9]

The Holy See, for its part, although at odds with the government in Paris, took care not to aggravate the situation and, in an article published in L’Osservatore Romano on August 25, 1904, made it clear that it had no intention of modifying the statute of the Holy Places, but that, if the government insisted on a policy of persecution against the Church, this would also have repercussions on the question of the protectorate.

After the break with the Holy See, the government in Paris, responding to the requests of the Italian government, considered it opportune to reach an agreement with Rome regarding the protection of the Catholics in the Holy Land. The negotiations were not easy, and France was very reluctant to abandon established positions. The negotiations on the Italian side were carried out by the minister Tommaso Tittoni, who had the support not only of the Catholic world, but also of almost the entirety of national public opinion, which was very sensitive on this issue. Finally, in the last days of August 1905, the agreement was signed. This explicitly recognized the right of Italy to accept the requests made spontaneously “by Italian religious communities located in the Ottoman Empire and until now under the protection of France.”[10] For its part, the Italian government undertook to communicate these requests to the French government, in order to resolve amicably any difficulties that might arise and to regulate relations with the Sublime Porte.

This agreement, although little known, is very important from a historical point of view: it marked the end, at least in principle, of the French monopoly in the protection of Latin Catholics – and not only these – living in the Ottoman Empire. For Italy, on the other hand, it represented an undoubted victory in the diplomatic field and opened up the possibility of seeing its own area of influence in the eastern Mediterranean basin recognized by the other European powers.

The Italian government, encouraged by French willingness and the support it received from other countries, in the same year asserted its claim to political and economic influence over the regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (present-day Libya) and asked France for the exclusive protectorate of these. This, albeit with some misgivings, was granted to her in January 1906. A note from the Quai d’Orsay of February 28, addressed to all their consular representatives in the Ottoman Empire, sought to clarify the matter, so that this concession would not appear to be a victory for Italy to the detriment of French interests in the Middle East: “If, in accordance with the principle of the law of nations,” wrote the French representative, “we make no objection to the passage under the Italian protectorate of purely Italian institutions, we do not intend to let the Italian government assume toward mixed institutions pre-eminence from the international point of view, which has hitherto been the privilege of France in the East.”[11]

In short, the French government presented the concession made to Italy in the spirit of Article 62 of the Berlin Treaty, but in reality a breach had been opened in the wall of French exclusivism on Middle Eastern questions concerning Catholics and, little by little, concessions and old privileges in the new historical context were increasingly vulnerable or in any case conspicuously limited. It was in  the spirit of the new course of European international politics.

The Italo-Turkish war and the revocation of Italian rights over Libyan Catholics

The Italo-Turkish war (late September 1911-October 1912), provoked by the Italian occupation of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica – which at that time were part of the Ottoman Empire – approved and blessed by the great European colonial powers, had, as was predictable, repercussions on the situation of Catholics in the East and also on the relations between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy See that had been established since the time of Pius IX.[12] From the reports sent to the Secretariat of State by the Apostolic Vicar in Constantinople, Monsignor Vincenzo Sardi, we learn that the newspapers of the Turkish capital, under pressure from the government, mounted an anti-Catholic campaign, attacking the very person of the pope. “Some newspapers here,” wrote Sardi, “published furious articles against the Holy Father, pointing to him as an accomplice of the Italian government.”[13]

After the clashes of Sciara Sciat, near Tripoli – where, in an ambush set up by the locals, two Italian regiments were almost completely wiped out – this campaign reached its climax, also in response to what had been said and done in Italy even by clerics. “The Turkish newspapers,” reads a report by Monsignor Vincenzo Sardi of October 26, 1911, “in these moments are studying all the ways to arouse public opinion against the Holy See and the Catholic Church in relation to the matter of Tripoli. The various speeches made by bishops and eminent cardinals, blessing the flags and wishing victory, have served as material for their articles. The Government, too, is not immune from these encroachments, and nothing is achieved.”[14]

The accusation made against the Holy See of being pro-Italian, and therefore not impartial or neutral in the ongoing conflict, though unjustified, apparently circulated in some sectors of European diplomacy. The first “hostile” measure taken by the Sublime Porte against the Holy See consisted in the interdiction of communications between the Apostolic Vicariate of Constantinople and the Secretariat of State. Immediately afterward all the privileges and diplomatic facilities granted by the Turkish government to the pope’s representative were revoked.[15] Monsignor Sardi immediately protested to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through the mediation of the French Ambassador – who officially had the “privilege” of defending the interests of the Catholic Church in the Middle East with the Sultan – about the injustice of the measures taken against the papal representative, stressing “the absolute independence of the Holy See as regards Italy”[16] and the recognition of its sovereignty – attested to also in the Law of Guarantee – by all the European powers. Moreover, he affirmed that, since the “Roman Question” had not yet been resolved, it was necessary to “consider the Vatican in a state of enmity”[17] with the Quirinal (the Italian government).

Despite the insistent protests of the Apostolic Vicar, the Turkish government considered it opportune to treat the Vatican representative in the same way as a diplomat of Italian nationality. To the appropriate remarks made by the French ambassador on the particular juridical-institutional status of the pope and on the hostilities existing between the Italian government and the Holy See, the Turkish Foreign Minister replied: “Then how can it be explained that the Holy See is being protected here by the Italian government?”[18]

This was not at all true. In fact, the Vatican Secretariat of State had not asked the Italian government for protection for its ecclesiastical affairs in the Middle East. If anything this was done by individual religious living in the Ottoman Empire – in particular in the Holy Land – in so far as they were Italian citizens. But the Turkish government was not interested in such subtleties regarding relations between Italy and the Holy See, limiting itself to considering everything on a purely utilitarian level. In effect, in the measure of expulsion of Italians from all the territory of the Empire, issued by the Turkish government, no distinction was made between lay people and churchmen. The measure was not applied to the religious only because they were considered “dependent on the protectorate of France,” and hence, from the point of view of law, equal to French citizens. For the Holy See it was of great importance at that moment – for both religious and political and diplomatic reasons – that the “above parties” attitude taken by the pope in the war being fought by Italy be evident to all.[19] It was not easy, however, to keep the feelings of Catholics and of the Italian clergy under control, especially when the bodies of those who had fallen in the various theaters of war began to arrive home.

The brief Italo-Turkish war in reality rendered a dead letter the privileges that Italy had obtained in the agreements stipulated with France about the protection of Catholic interests in the regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica and weakened the strength of its religious-cultural penetration in the Middle East – also after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, following the First World War – to the advantage of its antagonist, the French government.[20] The latter, at home, based itself on the principle of the secular State and promoted  openly anticlerical legislation. But in the colonies it acted as a champion of Catholic and confessional interests, and jealously guarded this ancient “privilege,” working to ensure that it was respected and recognized by all, in particular by the Holy See and the Italian government.

This de facto exclusion of Italy from Middle Eastern affairs – notwithstanding the partial conquest of Libya – greatly weakened its position in the international arena, when, after the end of the First World War, the remains of the “Sick Man of Europe” was divided among the  European powers. In that circumstance, Italy was not able to assert itself in negotiations, including the widespread presence of Italian missionaries in the former Ottoman Empire, particularly in the Holy Land, and was content with what it had painstakingly won, including some territorial expansion. Unlike the other “victorious” powers, Italy had little influence in the important decisions that contributed to the geographical and political formation of the modern Middle East.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.11 art. 4, 1122: 10.32009/22072446.1122.4

[1].      Cf. G. Sale, “I cattolici nell’Impero ottomano”, in Civ. Catt. 2013 IV 226-235.

[2].      Cf. V. Ianari, Lo stivale nel mare. Italia, Mediterraneo, Islam: alle origini di una politica, Milan, Guerini e Associati, 2006, 109f.

[3].      Cf. G. Del Zanna, I cristiani e il Medio Oriente (1798-1924), Bologna, il Mulino, 2011, 151f.

[4].      Quoted in V. Ianari, Lo stivale nel mare…, op. cit., 120.

[5].      Ibid., 121.

[6].      Ibid., 124.

[7].      Cf. ibid.

[8].      It should be remembered that the visit of President Émile Loubet to King Victor Emanuel III in Rome, in April 1904, was much contested by the Holy See, because it was considered inopportune and offensive to the unwritten rights of the pontiff over the Eternal City. In fact, a directive  from the time of Pius IX forbade Catholic heads of State to visit Rome. This provided the occasion for the head of the French government, the radical Émile Combes, to unilaterally denounce the Concordat of 1801 with the Holy See and immediately afterward to have Parliament vote in  the law of separation between Church and State in France. Cf. J.-M. Maeur, La séparation des Églises et de l’État, Paris, Les Éditions de l’Atelier, 2005, 33f.

[9].      In a report sent to his government in November 1904, the Paris representative to the Sublime Porte stated that as many as 4,055 missionaries were under French protection and that 108,000 students were studying in the schools run by them.

[10].    V. Ianari, Lo stivale nel mare…, op. cit., 154.

[11].    Ibid.

[12].    Cf. G. Sale, Libya 1911. I cattolici, la Santa Sede e l’impresa coloniale italiana, Milan, Jaca Book, 2011; N. Labanca, Oltremare. Storia dell’espansione coloniale italiana, Bologna, il Mulino, 2007.

[13].    Archivio Segreto Vaticano (ASV), Segreteria di Stato, 1913, 164; 57.

[14].    G. Sale, Libia 1911…, op. cit., 113.

[15].    A Note of October 6, 1911, from the French Embassy in Constantinople informs the Apostolic Delegate of the decision taken by the Sublime Porte as follows: “The French representative in Constantinople has informed the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic by telegraph that the Sublime Porte, considering the state of war with Italy, refuses to transmit the coded telegrams addressed to the Holy See, withdrawing also the facilities it had previously given the Delegate out of kindness and courtesy. Ms. de Selves also telegraphed to the French Ambassador in Constantinople, telling him to offer Monsignor Sardi the ability to transmit the coded telegrams that he would like to send to the Holy See” (ASV, Secretariat of State, op. cit., 41).

[16].    Ibid., 51.

[17].    Ibid., 55.

[18].    Ibid.

[19].    In Europe not everyone was convinced of the neutrality of  the Holy See in the Italo-Turkish war. On October 10, 1912, the nuncio in Vienna wrote to the Vatican that an Austrian socialist deputy had censured the Italian Catholics and the clergy, who, in his opinion, “in the recent Italo-Turkish war had shown themselves favorable to the war, making league with the capitalists, and therefore attacked the Banco di Roma, saying it was a clerical enterprise ” (ibid., 128).

[20].    The pontifical diplomacy and the Secretariat of State took advantage of the situation of the conflict in progress to bring to the attention of public opinion and international diplomacy the difficulties in which the Holy See would find itself in the event that Italy entered war with another country, since the many problems – opened by the long-standing “Roman Question” – concerning the independence and autonomy of the pope were still unresolved. In this regard, Monsignor Sardi wrote to the Vatican, on October 13, 1911, that the condition imposed on the Holy See in Constantinople “could serve as a good occasion for an article in some [European] newspaper to confirm what has been said so many times about the difficulty the Supreme Pontiff would have in dealing with a nation at war with Italy. It is the first case to occur after 1870. The articles in the Turkish newspapers against the pope also prove the need for the Holy See to be completely independent of the Italian government” (ibid., 57)

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