The Arab Christians: From the Eastern Question to the Recent Political Situation of the Minorities
From Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East
© 1998 Oxford University Press
Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press
6. Europe and the Eastern Question
To understand how Western influence increasingly spread into 'Arab-Ottoman' territory, we must undoubtedly start from the Capitulations.
The first Capitulations were treaties drawn up between a Western power and the Ottoman Empire, according to which, residents of the Empire from the Western State in question were granted certain trade advantages, various forms of legal and jurisdictional protection, as well as the protection of certain freedoms, including religious freedom. Such measures were in fact a revocation of Ottoman common law. The first occasion on which they were introduced was the signing of an agreement with the Republic of Venice, which became recognized as the protector of Franciscans in the Holy Land. They were to become very common in relations with France from 1535 onwards and extended to other European powers too. 8
In the wake of the Capitulations, France opened consulates in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and later in Mesopotamia. In 1604 the Capitulations with France concerned the Holy Places and the protection of monks who served there, as well as French guardianship of the goods and property of the Catholic monks in Palestine. The Capitulations were renewed by the different regimes which followed in France and were also confirmed by the Treaty of Berlin (1878). At the same time, the Capitulations began to be influenced by strong supremacist tendencies, which took them out of their specific technical, and legal context, and gave them a stronger political connotation. Traders, missionaries, Western citizens living in the Empire, and soon Eastern Christians too, all found themselves placed under the protection of the French kings. Gradually a tradition of French protection of Eastern Christians was formed. King Louis XIV and King Louis XV of France were declared the protectors of all Roman Catholic clergy on Ottoman territory. In the middle of the eighteenth century France was recognized by the Holy See and by the European powers as the protector of Christians affiliated to Rome. In so many words, the Capitulations granted to France had come to mean 'the protection of Christians of the Ottoman Empire'. 9
Tsarist Russia had equally supremacist tendencies. However, unlike France the influence she was seeking to acquire in the East was primarily military. The Russian dream was to make ancient Byzantium the capital of an Orthodox vassal State of Russia. Russian troops launched into attack on the Crimea, where they settled (1711), and then annexed it (1784). Elsewhere, from the Caucasus to the Balkans that is, they fought against the Turks. An important aim was achieved in 1774 when, as victors over the Ottomans after a six-year war, the Russians obtained recognition as protectors of Christians. Article 16 of the treaty of Kucuk Qainarge (1774) made the Russian tsar the guarantor of commitments undertaken by the Sultan for the protection of the Christians of the Empire. The door was opened to Russian claims to take on the role of protectors of Orthodox Christians. In 1853 Nicholas I tried to obtain a protectorate over the Orthodox Christians of the Empire through a bilateral treaty signed with the Sultan. The Ottomans refused immediately. Europe also rose in defence against Russia's claims, however. The French and the British were worried by the Russian victories over the Ottoman Empire, by the annexation of part of Armenia (1828), and by her control of the Bosphorus. From then on they tried to thwart her plans, beginning with the Paris Conference of 1856, at which Russia temporarily renounced her claim to the protectorate of the Orthodox. In 1878 however, at the signing of St Stephen's treaty following a victorious war in the Balkans, the Russians obtained their much-desired protectorate from the Sultan. Again under French and British pressure they abandoned their ambitions in Berlin in 1878. From this moment up to the victory of Bolshevism, the tsars dedicated their efforts to the situation of the Greek Orthodox communities in the Ottoman Empire and showed particular interest in the city of Jerusalem.
Great Britain, unlike the Russians and French, had no Christian ' protégés ' to speak of. Her 'Arab policy' consisted of counteracting French influence, whether Egypt, the Lebanese Mountains, or in Syria. In Egypt the British set about preventing Paris's influence on Muhammad 'Ali and his son Ibrahim Pasha. London took over in Egypt as conqueror in 1882. In Syria she forced Ibrahim Pasha's troops, supported by France, to retreat, to save Turkey from defeat. During the mountain massacres of 1840 and 1860 in Mount Lebanon, she pitched the Druze against the Maronites, who were protected by France.
Transformed into political instruments and 'clientele', the Christians of the Arab world became cards to play in the contest between the European powers. The ultimate aim of the West's strategy was to dismember the Ottoman Empire.