Can one found a church on the open sea under an Islamic government?

By Ohannes Kilicdagi

Description of the source: This document is a communication between the office of the Grand Wazīr and Shaykh al-Islām in 1847. It requests permission by the chief commander of the navy from the religious authorities.

Content: The chief commander of the navy proposed to allocate a dedicated space for Christian mariners and employ commissioned priests on board so that they could observe their religious duties and rituals while sailing on the open sea. Through these priests the Christian soldiers who died while serving might have been treated according to their own faith. Troubles emerged when these mariners disembarked to go to the church would be avoided as some of them deserted after disembarkation. He emphasized that in this way Christian soldiers may have felt more positive towards both the military service and state.

Both the Grand Wazīr and the sultan himself did not see any inconvenience in this proposal. However, before its final implementation they sent it for the approval of Shaykh al-Islām who vetoed the proposal. He said that allowing such practices on board would mean to establish a church in each ship and an Islamic state cannot establish churches by its own hand. Since the Ottoman state was an Islamic state, this proposal could not be accepted.

Comment: the 19th century was a time of reform for the Ottoman Empire, and one of the most essential parts of these reforms was the integration of non-Muslims into the state in accordance with the modern political principles such as equality. The state was supposed to embrace all people belonging to different religions. This was vital for the survival of the state as this process would make non-Muslims feel themselves as the legitimate and equal members of the Ottoman state and society. In other words, they would believe that the state was also their state.

The integration of Christians to the Ottoman army was an important part of this project and the proposal mentioned above would be a concrete step serving to both ideological and practical purposes. However, its invalidation by the highest religious authority shows that Islamic thinking was still very powerful within the state circles and was a real impediment to reforms. So much so that, even the sultan did not prefer to push for a practice which he believed would be beneficial for the administration. One can claim that its rejection created or bolstered the sense of alienation among Christian mariners.

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