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       How and when Catholicism
was imposed on National Churches of Mesopotamia?

by Hirmis Aboona


Those who studied the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire divide its history into two distinct periods. The first is the period of might, and supremacy and protection of Christians and the second are that of decline and oppression of its Christian subjects.

During both periods, the Ottoman rulers, left evidence, of their treatment to their Christian subjects whether they were followers of the Orthodox Church or those of the Church of the East. They also left evidences for their attitude in regard to the western interference in the affair of the Ottoman Christian Churches throughout the period of their might and decline. Thus, the history of the Ottoman treatment of their Christians is well-documented fact.

During the might of their Empire the Ottoman Turks did protect their Christian subject from all forms of western interference and evil designs aiming at subjugating their churches and creating a western sphere of influence among them. However, Christian subjects of the Sultans witnessed during the period from 1535 until the downfall of the Empire two phases of treatment. The first was marked by tolerance, freedom of worship, equality and full protection of the state especially against the intention of a certain western powers power especially France.

Ottoman treatment for non Muslim subjects reflect many factors which worked together to shape the outcome of their relation with the National Churches in regard to their relations with Christian Europe. The most obvious factor was that related to the early division in the Church Universal which immediately following the Councils of Ephesus 431 and Chalcedon 451. Both Councils marked the emergence of the national eastern Churches, which led to the permanent split in the unity of Universal Church by which the Christendom world split into east and West.

Rome since the split of the fifth century took place did not forget, and forgive, the national churches and its tendency to hold its own doctrine, and to enjoy independence in running its internal affairs without interference of Rome which aimed at subduing them to the authority of its Bishop. Therefore, the deep-rooted desire to subdue and bring under its sway the so – called “Heretics of the East” remain unfilled task and desire of Rome, which attempted to do so whenever an opportunity occurred. The first effected Rome’s attempt to impose its supremacy took place during the fourth crusade in 1204. The Crusaders when they occupied the eastern shores of Mediterranean (During this campaign the massacre of Constantinople took place and large number of Christian Orthodox fell victims of Crusaders including clergies, children and women) imposed Catholicism on the followers of the Church of Antioch. The did create the present –day Maronites sect that according to reliable studies, its followers remain loyal to their Syriac ancestor’s doctrine for many centuries to come.

Nevertheless, the second opportunity occurred during the early decades of the sixteenth century. The old colonial states of the Spain and Portages who were competing to control strategic area and routes in the Middle east, Red See and Indian Ocean. They were competing with Ottoman and receiving Persian support which in reality made the French (the opponent of the Iberian Peninsula” natural allies to Ottoman in this equation. This situation led Sultan Sulaiman (1520 – 1566) to offer France concessions known as “Capitulation’s” in 1535 by which France was given many privileges among which were those of religion, freedom for missionary labor and other degree permitting the Catholic orders to establish themselves and their missions in the Levant.

Rome with France support, lost no time, the next year (1536) established a mission station in Jerusalem. From their nearby location, the Catholic missionaries attempted to settle their old feud with the National Eastern Churches; the Church of the East and the Suryan Orthodox Church, and to bring them under the control of the Pope’s. Upon this background an early attempt was made by Rome to split the Church of the Eat with desire to implement the well-maintained aspiration of bringing the Eastern Christian under Rome’s supremacy. However, the episode of Sulaka is well known and it was a disaster to Rome’s efforts, plan and designs. While the national Churches remain enjoying their privileged status.

There are many reason behind the failure of Rome in its early attempt among which were:

  1. The Ottoman rulers during their might did not persecute their Christian subjects as been mentioned earlier. On contrary they were protected and were enjoying their freedom as subjects of the Sultan. The Sultans were convinced that treating their Christian subjects justly and without discrimination and protecting them would contribute to the wellbeing of their state and will assist in maintaining the strength of their Empire. Thus the rulers did show their concern and care for all their subjects and offered them the protection of the state. Sultan Mohammed al Fatih gave an interesting example to the limit of the care and benefit of his subjects regardless to their race and religion when he learned and spoke nine languages among which was the Assyrian / Syriac language.
  2. The Ottoman rulers during this period did not support the western powers and their missionaries in their design and aims to impose their doctrine. On contrary they did punish those followers of the European powers who attempted to harm and ill-treat their Christian subjects. It has been recorded that the Ottoman authority put to death Sulaqa along Six Armenian Catholic bishops for their activities and connection with the foreign power. All were executed except an Armenian Bishop who attempted to save his life by converting to Islam.
  3. It is well documented fact that during the period of the Ottoman strength and might, the Catholic missionaries could not score any success in their design and attempts. However, it was during the period of decline and military defeats that the Catholic missionaries found the conditions by which they were able to use the power of the Ottoman State to fulfil their design and impose the doctrine of Rome on the Christian of the Asiatic provinces.
  4. During the period of the Ottoman decline and feebleness the Roman Catholic missionaries were able to penetrate the Church of the east and the Suryan orthodox church as it shows in the report of the British Consul at Mosul to his Ambassador in Constantinople.

The Catholic Missionaries in the British documents:

Following the wholesale massacres against the Assyrian people of Tiyari and Hakkari during the years 1843 – 1846. The Catholics, with full support of the French diplomats, and the Ottoman government, found a golden opportunity to impose their doctrine on the follower of the Church of the East after centuries of fruitless attempts.

These mounted activities were well observed by the British diplomats in Constantinople, the Ottoman capital and throughout the regions inhabited by the followers of the Church of the East and the Suryan Orthodox Church. Sir Stratford Canning, the famous British Ambassador which during the mentioned period requested from his Consul at Mosul to report to him on the history and activities of the Catholic in the mentioned region. The Consul, however, in November 29, 1844 did write a report on the subject as follow:


“In compliance with the directions contained in your Excellency confidential dispatch of October 16th, I have made strict enquiry from persons well acquainted with the subject, as to the origin and history of the Foreign religious established in this quarter”

Activities in Mosul, Mardin and Diarbekir

“those that come within the sphere of my information are [ to eased ] at Moossul, Mardin, and Diarbekir, all under French protection, and presided over by a French Monseigneer Trioche, Bishop of Baghdad and Papal legate”.

“These missions assert to be more than two hundred years old, but they only really date to late in the seventeenth or the commencement of the eighteenth century”.

The beginning of the Missionaries

“The first appearance of the Roman Catholiek Missionaries in these Countries was in the garb of medical men, and in that capacity gained the good will of the various Pashas and careful of awakening the jealous bigotry of the Mohammedans, they assumed the Mussulmans costume, in the character of physicians to the Pashas and their Harems, they obtained easy access to the native Christians, upon whom they bestowed every care and kindness, and more moreover extremely generous in their charities”.

The process of the Missionaries in their plan

“When they had thus won the friendship of all, they quietly fitted up a room in their houses, as private chapels, where mass celebrated. Afterwards, they cautiously instilled their doctrines into the minds of their most intimate acquaintances of some of whom they made proselytes but these were concealed with the strictest secrecy until the various establishments acting simultaneously on one apparently consented plan, so far extended their influence and augmented the number of their adherents, as gradually to change their calling from pious physicians, to declared preachers. But still continue to practise [practice] medicine”.

A. The Catholic Missionaries activities in Mosul
The support of Al Abd-ul Jalil to the Missionaries in Mosul

“The Mossul mission has existed about one hundred and thirty years. Their present residence was bequeathed to them by a childless widow, she left no near relations to despite the will, and although the Monks had no legal “Hodjet” [title deed] no one at the time questioned their right as Europeans, to possess a landed property on entering they constructed a Chapel, by throwing three rooms into one, forming a long dark vaulted hall; not unlike the stables of the country.”

“Thus matters continued by purchasing, in the name of Hogia Hannah, the French Dragoman, [Translator] two adjoining houses, and commencing extensive [ …] and alterations, they aroused the suspicion of the Mohammedans, and brought on the late violent disturbances”.

B. The Catholic Activities in Mardin

“At Mardin, the Monks established themselves nearly at the same time as those of Moossul, and situated at a greater distances from the Nestorian Patriarch, were far more successful than their brethren with that sect”.

C. The Catholic Missionaries activities among the Jacobites

“From the Jacobites they experienced a most determined opposition, and were twice expelled by them, and as often brought back by the powerful influences of the Turks. The time the whole of the Nestorians community there, and even some of the Jacobites, embraced the faith of Rome”.

“They were first lodged in a small house, which they still hold, obtained like that at Moossul; their doubtful tenure, of which is well known to the Jacobites, who would try the question, did they not dread the resentment of France. Their near abode, a large and commodious habitation they purchased from the heirs of a zealous Catholick named Elias el Shadee, and in which they erected a church. The Mussulmans however, protested against the illegality of the sale, and cancelled it. By bribe and intervention the Monks were permitted to rent it, and paid ten years in advance, seven of which have yet to runnn”.


“The Diarbekir mission is the oldest, it was founded about a century and had a half ago [ 1844 – 150 = 1694 ]. There they rented a small dwelling, and taking advantage of a quarrel between the Nestorian Patriarch of Alkosh, and Mar Yusuf, the Metropolitan of Diarbekir, persuaded the latter to visit Rome, and during his absence converted his flock. After which finding they could make no impression upon the Jacobites, and Armenians, they returned to Europe, and for a space of sixty years, Diarbekir was not again visited by them.

Then came the new system organised at Lyouns, of sending out Missionaries under the special auspices of the Pope, and two Monks again repaired to Diarbekir, and succeeded in finding the house of their predecessors, but possessed by a Mohammedan who claimed it as the property of his ancestors, and on their demanding it, called upon them to produce their title to it which they could not. As the case remained undecided until the arrival there of Monseneuir Vidl the acting French Consul at Baghdad, to whom the Monks referred it. On reaching Constantinople he as represented the matter to the French Ambassador, that His Excellency obtained an order from the Porte directing that undisputed possession should be accorded to the Monks and there they now remain”.

“Before the coming of the Monks there was not a Roman Catholic House in the three Pashaliks [ Provinces of Mosul, Mardin and Diarbekir]. Nor, all the Nestorians of the plain, and one third of the Jacobites of that persuasive in the mountain both sects retain their ancient faith. The Monks [Catholics] enjoy great influence over the native Catholics, and even preach in their churches, and in all different matters direct the priests”.

F.O. 195 / 228. Mosul 20 November 1844. From Rassam to Canning.


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