Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
The conventional narrative on the Greek Revolution is generally dualistic to the point of being outright Manichaean. On the one side, representing the forces of light and goodness are the valiant, freedom-loving Greeks, nobly struggling to free themselves from the oppression of the forces of darkness, symbolised by the blood-thirsty Ottomans, on the other side, with their murderous ways and propensity to engage in the wholesale slaughter of their Christian subjects.
When one reads the memoirs of revolutionary heroes, however, one often comes across situations where Greeks were tipped off as to impending danger and even doom by concerned Muslim friends, who thought nothing of placing common humanity above religious affiliation. Yet, as this story of one of the most senior imams of the Ottoman Empire will show, the triumph and tragedy of human decency extended to the upmost echelons of the Ottoman Islamic hierarchy.
In March 1821, as news of the Greek revolt arrived in Constantinople and rumours of massacres of Turks in the Danubian Principalities spread, the enraged Sultan ordered the arrest of seven prominent Orthodox metropolitans resident in the city. He also ordered the arrest of prominent Phanariotes such as chief diplomat, the Grand Dragoman Constantine Mourouzis, in the light of news arriving of the revolt in the Peloponnese. Considering, as it turns out rightly, that Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory the Fifth was if not involved in the revolt then at least in possession of knowledge about its planning and execution, the Sultan accused him of complicity and because the Ecumenical Patriarch was responsible and answerable to the Sultan for the conduct of all Orthodox Christian subjects, he requested that a fatwa, or Islamic ruling be pronounced, allowing a general massacre against all Greeks living in the Empire.
A fatwa could only be pronounced by the Şeyḫülislam, (Sheikh of Islam) the grand mufti of the Ottoman Empire and its most high ranking cleric. Performing a number of important duties such as advising the sultan on religious matters, legitimizing government policies, overseeing other imams and appointing judges, the influence of the Şeyḫülislam could be evidenced in the fact that he was also charged with the duty of confirmimg new Sultans, even though once the sultan was so confirmed, the Sultan retained a higher authority than the Şeyḫülislam. Most significantly, the Şeyḫülislam was charged with the power of issuing fatwas, which were written interpretations of the Quran that had authority over the Ottoman Islamic community.
At the time of the Greek revolution, the Şeyḫülislam was one Çerkes Halil Efendi, a Circassian from the Caucusus in origin. Hastening to perform his master’s bidding, Halil Efendi duly issued the fatwa calling for a massacre against the Ottoman Greeks by pious muslims. No sooner had he issued the fatwa however, that he took the unprecedented step of withdrawing it. This is due to the fact that Halil Efendi felt that due process had to be followed and that he had erred in issuing the fatwa as he did not have enough evidence to support the proposition that all the Greeks in the Ottoman Empire had revolted. Further, he became aware that Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory V had condemned the insurgents and felt that he should consult with him before taking any precipitous action.
To the fury of the Sultan, Halil Efendi asked his master for more time to confer with the Ecumenical Patriarch before re-issuing the fatwa. The content of the discussions between the two most senior representatives of the Ottoman Empire’s major religions is unknown, however, it is understood that Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory V managed to convince Halil Efendi that the Patriarchate had nothing to do with the Revolution and sought his protection, knowing that massacres against the Greeks in Asia Minor were imminent. Further giving Halil Efendi pause for thought, Patriarch Gregory V, under pressure from the Sultan took the overt step of excommunicating the Greek revolutionaries.
Knowing full well that plans for the massacres of the Greeks were in their final stages, Halil Efendi made perhaps one of the most significant stands on principle in the entire history of the Greek Revolution. Openly defying his master, he refused to issue the fatwa authorising the killings, on the grounds of Islamic law. In particular, he told an incandescent Sultan that according to the Quran a massacre could not be authorised against the Greeks because in the proposed fatwa sought of him, there was no distinction made between the innocent and the guilty, and a slaughter of innocents could not be sanctioned.
Halil Efendi’s stance was particularly brave due to the fact that even though he was the highest ranking Islamic cleric in the Empire, the Sultan still had the power of life or death over him. Infuriated by his act of insubordination, the Sultan ordered him stripped of his position, the loss of his possessions and his exile after extensive torture to the island of Lemnos.
Meanwhile, that which Halil Efendi so valiantly strove to avoid began to take place. One week after issuing his excommunication, on Easter Sunday, Patriarch Gregory V was apprehended by Ottoman soldiers during the liturgy and hanged at the central gate of the Patriarchate, which has remained closed in protest at this act of barbarity. The Metropolitan bishops held hostage Dionysios of Ephesus, Athanasios of Nicomedia, Gregory of Derkoi, and Eugenios of Anchialos were also hanged, as was Constantine Mourouzis and other high ranking Phanariotes. The execution of these prominent members of the Constantinopolitan Greek community sparked a reign of terror where the new Şeyḫülislam Yasincizade Abdülvehhap Efendi, eager to avoid the fate of Halil Efendi, issued the sought after fatwa, encouraging fanatical Muslims to attack Greek communities throughout the Ottoman Empire. Consequently, janissaries and other irregular bands roamed the streets of the city, looting Greek churches and property and murdering whichever Greeks they could find.
The Ottoman authorities specifically sought to deprive the Greek community of its leadership, deliberately marking for execution, prominent Greeks in government service, in the Orthodox Church, or members of prominent families. They also orchestrated the massacre of several hundred Greek merchants trading in the city. Despite the pleas of newly instated Ecumenical Patriarch Evgenius who repeated his predecessor’s act of excommunication against the Greek rebels, Ottoman fury did not abate. As late as July, public executions of Greeks were still a daily occurrence in Constantinople and on the fifteenth of that month, five archbishops and three bishops were executed. As the indiscriminate sackings, lootings, rapes and murders continued, four hundred and fifty shopkeepers and traders were rounded up and sent to work in mines.
As the fatwa issued by Abdülvehhap Efendi was broad in application, massacres spread to other regions with a Greek population as well. In Smyrna, Ottoman troops awaiting transport to Greece in order to fight the rebels entered the city and acting in concert with members of the local Turkish population, they embarked on a general massacre of the Greeks of that city. A similar massacre took place in the town of Aivali, which was burned to the ground and its famous Academy was destroyed. Similar massacres were also perpetrated against the Greek inhabitants of Kos, Rhodes and Cyprus whose archbishop Kyprianos, as well as five other local bishops were killed.
While it is true to say that the massacres perpetrated against the Greeks of Constantinople, Smyrna and elsewhere as a result of the fatwa did much to create outrage among Western societies and galvanise public sympathy of the Greek revolutionaries, one victim received no publicity at all. His body broken by torture and his health irretrievably compromised by the privations of his incarceration, Çerkes Halil Efendi did not live long enough to make it to his place of designated exile. He died as the Greek population of the Empire was being massacred, his noble and selfless gesture ultimately unable to prevent the bloodbath that ensued.
There exists today in popular Greek accounts of the Revolution, rarely any reference to the courageous sacrifice of Çerkes Halil Efendi. No monument exists in his honour, while only the historian Dimitrios Kambouroglou, who died in 1942 has called for a Greek street to be named in his honour. In this age of identity politics, of increased polarisation and identity politics, the example of a true humanitarian, willing to reach across ethnic and religious divides, to take a stand against violence and hatred and to pay the ultimate price for his support for the vulnerable and the disenfranchised ought to be appreciated and afforded greater prominence in our national narrative and in our community commemorations of the 1821 Revolution.