Proselytism and Crypto-Christians in
By ALKAN CHAGLAR
Without trivialising the significance of the settlement of Turkish Muslim settlers
from Anatolia, the issue of proselytisation in Cyprus is equally central to the historical evolution of the current Turkish
Cypriot community. Proselytism, the act of inducing someone to convert to one’s own faith was a widely common practice
in the Ottoman Empire, as it was in many Christian Empires both before, and during the reign of the Ottomans. Predictably,
prolonged proselytisation precipitated the formation of lax Muslim communities in various Ottoman dominions.
While in Ottoman Pontus and Crete, Greek Orthodox Christians were primarily
the ones who were converted to Islam, in Cyprus, at least in the initial period of Ottoman rule, most converts appear to have
been Latins and Maronites. Without drawing a list of lamentations, it is important in out time to at least be in a position
to talk about past events such as these.
After the defeat of the Venetians by the Ottomans in 1572, an ultimatum of
death, slavery or conversion was given to the Latin inhabitants of Cyprus; at least this is what many academics claim.
Well-respected Arabist and Ottoman historian Ronald Jennings summarises the
sentiment the Ottomans held toward the defeated Latins, “treating the Cypriots with consideration that their good will
towards them but showed no mercy to the Latins”. Jennings describes how Venetian soldiers who were taken as prisoners
were offered the opportunity to free themselves of slavery or death by converting to Islam, how common this was is unknown,
but several well-known figures such as the Venetian artillery commander Hercules Martingengo, converted to Islam. If high
ranking commanders converted then it is quite plausible that there were many renegades from the lower ranks also.
Commenting on the treatment of the Greeks, Harry Luke said in his book, ‘Cyprus
under the Turks’, “the Greek inhabitants everywhere readily welcomed the invading forces, once the prospect of
getting rid of the detested Latins seemed really to have come at last.” The Greek inhabitants would often supply the
Ottoman soldiers with food on their march to the Venetian fortifications. Without creating the impression that Ottomans and
Greeks were best of friends at this time, it is important to note that the latter considered the former the less of two evils
and welcomed change after centuries of harsh Frankish rule.
Jennings who deciphered Ottoman archives, cites that in the period 1593—1595,
31% of all adult male Muslims whose names and fathers’ names were cited as legal agents (vekil) in court were converts.
More than a third of such Muslims appearing in court at that time were converts, with 30% of all instrumental witnesses belonging
to this group in 1609-1611, and later 18% of all Vekils. These numbers represent quite a significant proportion of the Muslim
population of Cyprus in the 17th century.
Although these numbers deceased after 1611 conversion to Islam was not abandoned,
rather as sources suggest it continued into the 19th century.
As for the Maronites, Palmieri notes that in 1572 the
Maronites lived in 33 villages, by 1596, 24 years after the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus, the total number of Maronite villages
had descended to 19 then by the 20th century down to 4. Maronite villages included Metosic (Metochi), Fludi (Flamudi?),
Santa Marina (Ayia Marina), Asomatos, Gansili (Kambyli), Carpasia (Karpasha), Cormachita (Kormakitis), Primisia, Casapifani
(Kazafana), Veno (Vouno), Cibo, Jeri, Gensada, Attala, Clepirio (Klepini?), Piscopia (Piskobu), Gasbria (Gastria), Cefalarisco
and Sotta Cruscida (Crysida). Many of the aforementioned villages such as Kambyli, Kazafana, Ayia Marina, and Piskobu were
and still are partly or entirely Turkish speaking, while Kormakitis is still inhabited by Maronites today.
Proselytisation created an imbroglio in Cypriot society that led to the phenomenon
of a clandestine community of Crypto-Christians popularly known as Lino-bambaci (the cotton-linen sect). The term was coined
to illustrate the multi-identity of this group. Villages like Louroudjina (originally Laurentia), Potamia and some villages
in Tylliria, which were formerly the estates of the Latins converted en masse to Islam.
L.R Michel who wrote about the phenomena of Crypto-Christians in the 19th century
often talks about the conflict between the Latin and Orthodox priests over the burial rights of Lino-bambaci deceased; the
Orthodox Church whose bishops cooperated with the Ottoman rulers often won.
There were equally many legitimate cases of Greek Orthodox Christians converting
to Islam too, something that deserves discussion too, but some Greek historians argue that since the Lino-bambaci were Greek-speaking;
this might imply that they themselves were Greek. But things are rarely as they seem in Cyprus, Latins and Maronites who resided
in Cyprus often communicated partially or entirely in Greek even before the Ottoman Conquest. Arabist Alexander Borg points
out that “speaker competence in peripheral Arabic entails some knowledge of foreign languages”, and this would
have been the case in Cyprus as elsewhere where Maronites lived.
Let us not forget too that the Latin and Maronite communities had lived in
Cyprus for centuries prior to the arrival of Lala Mustafa Pashas Army, and had by then already become acclimatised to living
in an island that was majoritarily Greek speaking.
The fact is a substantial number of today’s Muslim Turkish Cypriots have
a Christian past, and are partly descended from those Venetian, Genovese and French families that had estates on the island
who proselytised to Sunni Islam. We are a mixed community, and with this we derive many strengths and a richness that makes
us who we are. It is time we as a community realised that there are many different faces in our past and not be ashamed of
it. Rather than reject this as madness, we should use these origins to build bridges of friendship with other cultures and
celebrate our multiple identities. Cypriot historians from both sides of the divide tend to focus too much on our Greco-Turkish
heritage, at the expense of objectivity, but Cyprus has and always will be a convergence of cultures.