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Friday, April 3, 2015

The “Other Christians”: Orthodox Christianity in the Crusader Kingdoms

In my last entry I argued that, on the whole, Muslims were not worse off under the crusaders, so why should the Christians, that the crusaders had come to deliver from oppression, have fared worse?

Mosaics in the Church of the Nativity commissioned by Baldwin III and clearly showing Byzantine workmanship
Again, let’s go back to basics. The First Crusade was as response to a plea by the Byzantine Emperor — or, if one follows the medieval Chronicler William of Tyre, an appeal made Peter the Hermit from Amiens who had personally visited Jerusalem.  Either way, the appeal to Western Christendom was that Christians (please note: Orthodox Christians) were being oppressed in the very city where Christ had been crucified. Rodney Stark provides an excellent catalogue of various atrocities committed against Christians in the years leading up to the First Crusade (Stark, pp 78-98).  The atrocities included the complete destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher along with some 30,000 other churches that were either pillaged or burned.  Aside from these periodic acts of violence that left Christians in a permanent state of insecurity, the Muslim regimes (even the more tolerant and benign rulers) persistently punished conversion to Christianity with death, prohibited the establishment/construction of new churches, prohibited the saying of Christian service and prayers out-loud — even in one’s home, prohibited Christians from bearing arms and even riding horse and — most important if one is an adherent of Machiavelli — taxed Christians at a significantly higher rate than Muslims.

Ruined Byzantine Church in Ascalon
For Orthodox Christians to be “worse off” under the crusader regimes, they would have had to suffer greater indignities than those listed above. They did not. They were freed of the extra tax, allowed to own horses, bear arms, build their own churches and monasteries — and they did! — and they practiced their religion openly and without fear. Not once during crusader rule were Orthodox Christians subject to massacres or the plundering of their homes by the ruling Franks.  I have yet to see even one concrete example of one way in which the Orthodox Christians in Outremer were “better off” under the Muslims.

Jotischky notes that “Greek and Syrian Orthodox, Armenian, Georgian, Coptic and Ehtiopian monasteries all flourished under Frankish rule.” (Jotischky, p. 126.) According to Hamilton “...other eastern-rite Churches were granted virtual autonomy by the Franks under their respective religious leaders…and were not made subject to the Catholic hierarchy.” (Hamilton, p. 50.) The only point of friction between Frank and other Christians resulted from the fact that the crusaders viewed the Greek Orthodox Church as part of the Catholic Church. While this was clearly advantageous for ordinary Greek Orthodox citizens, who then enjoyed all the same privileges as the ruling elite, it was a problem for the Greek Orthodox clergy because it effectively put them under the rule of the Pope -- something they did not accept.  Furthermore, if the two churches were one, there could only be one bishop per see, and naturally the Pope preferred to appoint Latin churchmen to such positions.

There was, therefore, considerable outrage among the Greek Orthodox hierarchy against the “loss” of episcopal sees, income, privilege and power, but as Jotischky points out: “…the replacement of Greeks with Latins probably made little difference to many parochial clergy in the patriarchate of Jerusalem, because the Orthodox bishops had tended to be Greeks appointed from Constantinople, whereas the Orthodox clergy and laity were Arabic-speaking.” Furthermore, the Franks allowed the Orthodox priests to minister to their flocks just as they had done before the First Crusade. Orthodox services continued as before using leavened bread, and Orthodox priests could marry as before.

The fact that a Jacobite (Syrian) Christian on Saladin’s staff (Joseph Batit) sought to convince the Syrian Christians in Jerusalem to surrender the city to Saladin during the siege of September 1187 does not prove that relations between the Franks/Latins and the Jacobites/Syrians were — as some would suggest — consistently bad. All it shows is that by September 30, 1187, after ten days of siege and the collapse of a portion of the wall, nerves in the Christian camp were (understandably) cracking. Yes, some Syrian Christians undoubtedly did, at that point, want to save their lives (and those of their wives and children) making them willing to negotiate with Saladin. The same day the leader of the Latin Christians, Balian d’Ibelin, did the same thing. Across the Kingdom of Jerusalem, citizens made the same decision out of sheer necessity, not because they had for a hundred years been unhappy living under the crusaders or because they had forgotten the oppression they has suffered under the Muslims in the past.

Scene from the film "The Kingdom of Heaven"
in which Balin d'Ibelin negotiates the surrender of Jerusalem to Saladin
On the contrary, not only were Orthodox Christians significantly better off under the crusader states than they had been before, they were active and often ardent supporters of the crusader states.  A significant portion of the Armies of Outremer were composed of native Christians who fought as “Turcopoles” — light cavalry (clearly a great privilege compared to being prohibited from bearing arms or riding horses under Muslim rulers). We also know that senior Orthodox clergy supported the Third Crusade, which they would not have done if they had thought their co-religionists were better off under Saladin.

The crusader states were states with a predominantly Christian population in which practitioners of the various Christian traditions lived harmoniously side-by-side without oppressing their Muslim or Jewish neighbors. In short, the crusader states were an early example — not of intolerance and bigotry as so often portrayed — but of tolerance and “multi-culturalism.”

In my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin I endeavor to portray the relations between the various Christians in the Kingdom of Jerusalem accurately.

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Learn more about crusader society at: Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

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