Here, Christians arrived with Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Islam arrived with the Ottoman conquerors in 13th and 14th centuries. Jews arrived in large numbers after being expelled from Spain – and were invited by the Ottoman rulers.
Of course, when your empire extends across large swaths of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, tolerance of diversity of all sorts is essential for keeping the peace. Hence the Ottoman embrace of the “millet” system, a formal policy of religious toleration under which non-Muslims were allowed to worship freely in their own small communities. They were allowed the privileges of the empire and spared one obligation – non-Muslims didn’t serve in the military. Instead, they paid a tax called “jizya.”
Freed of any military obligation, non-Muslims became merchants and professionals, many becoming wealthy in the process.
I’m in Turkey with a small group invited by the Chicago-based Niagara Foundation, which promotes intercultural dialogue. The others in the group are Jane Eesley, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Rockford: Kris Kieper, executive director of the YWCA; Kristina Reuber, who heads the Golden Apple Foundation: Buzz Hunter, principal of Prosser Career Academy in Chicago; and Celal Evliyaoglu, who runs the Turkish American Society of Rockford.
You can get a fairly complete picture of the fruits of diversity in one small slice of Istanbul’s Old Town district. There, in the span of about half a mile, sit Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman sultans administrative center of the empire; Hagia Sophia, one of the first great churches of Christendom, later a mosque, and now a museum; and the Blue Mosque, named for its brightly colored tiles.
We spent time at all three sites on Sunday, mingling with visitors from all over the globe. At dinner, our conversation turned briefly to crisis in Iraq, where militants have declared an Islamic state stretching from Syria to Iran. It’s a painful turn of events for Turkish Muslims raised with an expectation of religious tolerance.
“Nothing that organization does has anything to do with Islam or any religion,” said Hakan Berberoglu, Niagara’s vice president for outreach. “These people are crazy.”