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July 14, 2019

On 18 February 1856, the European Powers, mainly England and France, managed to extract from Sultan Abdulmejid I of the Ottoman Empire (1839 – 1861) the Hamayouni (Imperial) Decree (Hatt-ı Hümayun) which initiated the application of the reorganisation reforms (Tanzimat) directed at emancipation of the non-Muslim national groups within the empire. This occurred as a price to England’s and France’s support of Turkey against Russia in the Crimean War (1853 -1856) and following Treaty of Paris (1856). Contrary to what contemporary Copts think, the Hamayouni Decree was a progressive document: it set up policies to ensure that non-Muslims were free and equal under the Ottoman Sultan’s suzerainty. For the first time, the Christians are referred to be their name ‘Christians’, and not by the derogatory name, ‘Nasara (نصارى)’, or ‘Kuffar (كفار)’.

One of the most progressive and significant steps was the policy of establishing elected councils by the relevant non-Muslim groups to administer their internal affairs. The policy amounts to cultural, non-territorial autonomy for the Christians and Jews of the Ottoman Empire, of which the Copts were one national group. The relevant policy about the elected councils has been inaccurately translated into English by the Atatürk Institute of Modern Turkish History at the Boğaziçi University:

The temporal administration of the Christian or other non-Muslim communities shall … be placed under the safeguard of an assembly to be chosen from among the members, both ecclesiastics and laymen, of the said communities.[1]

The Hamayouni Decree is also available in an original, difficult and Arabic translation, presented in a scriptio continua form without paragraphing or punctuation marks, and the relevant bit is as follows:

وتحال إدارة المصالح الملية المختصة بحماية المسيحيين وباقي التبعة الغير مسلمة لحسن محافظة مجلس مركب من أعضاء منتخبة فيما بين رهبان كل جماعة وعوامها[2]

The translation of the Arabic text is as follows:

And the administration of the millet interests (affairs), which are particular to the protection[3] of the Christian and the rest of the non-Muslim subjects, is to be referred to the good keep of a council, constituted of elected members from amongst the monks (ecclesiastics) of each group and its public (laity).[4]


The Hamayouni Degree was seized by all non-Muslim ethnic-religion national groups within the Ottoman Empire. Early on, Pope Cyril IV used the decree to advance Coptic interests, demanding from Said Pasha (1854 – 1963), the ruler of Egypt, which was part of the Ottoman Empire, the implementation of the decree – a matter which eventually ended in his assassination.[5] The Armenians were the first national group to benefit from the stipulation in the Hamayouni Decree in regard to its elected councils, and in 1863 its intelligentsia managed to establish by the Armenian Millet Constitution (Nizâmnâme-i Millet-i Ermeniyân) their Armenian Millet Council.[6] Their intelligentsia was astute and politically aware, and read in the word ‘millet’ not a religious but a national group; and they established a council that, although it restricted the powers of the Armenian Patriarch, it did not embark in a policy that set it in perpetual conflict with the Church and confined its activities to the control of Church revenues.[7]  Not like that the Copts, who foolishly went about their business, and seem to have been entrapped in the Ottomans definition of the word ‘millet’.

Milla (Turkish, millet) means linguistically, in its original sense, a religious group, not a national one. The Orientalist Bernard Lewis gives us in his The Political Language of Islam the definition of the word ‘millet’ as understood by Muslims:

The word mulla, more familiar to us in its Turkish form millet, is a Quranic Arabic word of Aramaic origin, originally meaning “a word,” and hence a group of people who accept a particular word or revealed book. In Christian Aramaic it is used to translate logos. In Quranic and subsequent usage, it is more strictly religious in its connotation than umma. It is used of the religious community of Islam; it is also used of other, including non-Muslim, religious groups, and of some deviant groups within the Islamic world. In the Ottoman Empire it became a technical term, and was used for the organized, recognized, religio-political communities enjoying certain rights of autonomy under their own chiefs .

Again, the primary basis was religious rather than ethnic. Either interpretation is possible for the Armenians and the Jews, since these could be defined in both religious and ethnic terms. But the composition of the largest and most important of the non-Muslim millets, the Greek millet, makes it clear that the basic classification was religious. The Greek millet in the Ottoman empire meant the Greek Orthodox Church and all its followers, including Serbs, Rumanians, Bulgarians, Albanians, and Arabs, as well as Greeks. It was not until a very late date, and under the influence of European nationalist ideas, that separate ethnic millets began to appear. Similarly, there was only one Muslim millet in the Ottoman Empire, and the term was not used of Turks, Albanians, Arabs, Kurds, or other ethnic groups within the larger Muslim community. The Ottomans saw even the outside world in similar terms.[8]

But the Turks themselves came to use the word, ‘millet’ to mean ‘nation’, thereby altering its meaning significantly, though quite often merging it still with religion – an ambiguity common to all Muslims. Here, again, Lewis provides us with an interesting view:

… Arabs, Persians, and Turks alike preferred to take old terms, with a religious meaning, and refurbish them to meet the new need. In both Persian and Turkish, the words for “national” and “nation” are milli and millet, from the old milla or millet, “a religio-political community.” Even today, in the secular Turkish republic, “nation” is millet, “nationalism” is milliyet, and “nationalist” is milliyetci. In modern Arabic milla and milli are virtually obsolete, but the Arabs have adopted a word of equally religious content, umma, to designate the Arab nation.

Clearly, such words, when acquiring a new value, do not entirely lose the old, and the proportions of old and new meanings, of religious and national content with which they are used, may vary considerably according to time, place, circumstance, and the user. Sometimes different, indeed contrasting, meanings may be found in the same document, as for example in the great Ottoman reform edict of 1839, which proclaims an Ottoman millet that includes all Ottomans irrespective of religion, and goes on to discuss the need for good relations between “the people of Islam and other millets” within the Empire.

These and similar ambiguities have persisted, in the language of political discourse in Islamic lands, to the present day.[9]

While the Turks twisted the meaning of the word ‘millet’ to denote the meaning of ‘nation’, Arabs resorted to another Arabic word, ‘أمة’, with ambiguous and multi-meanings, and which is mentioned in Qur’an, to indicate ‘nation’:

The polity or community over which this sovereign rules is the umma, the single universal Islamic community embracing all the lands in which Muslim rule is established and the Islamic law prevails. The term umma is pre-Islamic, occurring in early Arabic as well as in other Semitic languages, and can be used of groups defined in various ways. It occurs several times in the Qur’an, with interesting variations. It can be ethnic, since the Qur’an speaks of the umma of the Arabs. It can be religious, since the Qur’an also speaks of the umma of the Christians. It can be moral, since the Qur’an speaks of the umma of good people, as opposed to the umma of bad people. It can be ideological, since the Qur’an speaks of the umma of those who do well and behave well among the Christians…

In classical Islamic literature, the word umma is frequently used in both religious and ethnic senses, sometimes with no clear differentiation between the two. Thus, mentions by medieval Arabic writers of the Persian and Turkish ummas may, in different contexts, refer to their pre-Islamic past, or may serve to contrast them, as Muslims, with the Arabs. Increasingly, however, Muslim writers came to speak of a single umma of the Muslims, without ethnic or regional subdivisions, and when they speak of other ummas (the Arabic plural is umam), these are usually religious groups such as, for example, the Christians or the Zoroastrians. They may also be ethnic nations, such as the Franks or the Slavs, though from late medieval times umma is rarely used of ethnic groups within Islam.[10]


The Copts, however, lacking the political insight of the Armenians – who although they used the terms ‘Nizâmnâme-i Millet-i Ermeniyân’ referred to it in their literature as the Armenian national Constitution and to their council as the Armenian National Council – and poor in political philosophy, seem to have been stuck in the nature of the council as a religious body. They were also late in establishing their millet council. After the assassination of Pope Cyril IV in 1861 by Said Pasha, his docile successor, Pope Demetrius II (1861 – 1870), who was threatened by Said Pasha not to follow on the footsteps of Cyril IV of trying to assert his nation’s interests,[11] it was not conceivable that any demands for an elected Coptic council will be put forward. İn the interregnum between the death Demetrius II and the election of his successor Cyril V (1874 [1 November] – 1927), when Said Pasha was dead and Khedive Ismail (1863 – 1879) was in power, Coptic notables, headed by the future prime minister (1908 – 1910), Boutros Ghali Pasha, obtained from the Khedive, on 3 February 1874, a high order to establish the Coptic Millet Council. To this day, the council carries the same title, and no attempt to name it, Coptic National Council, ‘مجلس الأمة القبطي’ or ‘المجلس القومي القبطي’, has been attempted.

Furthermore, the founders of the council never drafted a constitution like the one drafted by the Armenians in 1860 and covered a wide and detailed range of activities, not restricted to church issues,or issues connected with it, but saw the council as a national one interested in a wide range of issues.[12] The Copts had only a ‘لائحة إنتخاب’, a bylaw concerned only with the election procedure and the functions of the council.

This lack of a national outlook in the founders of the council, and its focus on the Copts as a religious group rather than a nation, has cost the nation a lot and set us in course of conflict with the Church, which to say the least has resulted in bitter events that the nation needs to be ashamed of. Again, it is the failure to see the Copts as a nation and only as a religious group, a failure which was born of ignorance and fear, that, in my opinion, has resulted in a failed experience. We seem to have been trapped in the word ‘millet’. Without a belief in the nation; without us believing ourselves to be a national group and not just a religious one; without having a national vision; our efforts to save our people and culture are doomed to failure.



[1] See: Boğaziçi University, Atatürk Institute of Modern Turkish History for an English translation of the 1856 Decree.

[2] غالي شكري، الأقباط في وطن متغير (القاهرة، ١٩٩١), ص ٢٠٢ نقلا عن “محيط الشرائع” لأنطون صغير، المجلد الثالث (القاهرة، ١٩٥٣).

[3] I suspect that the Arabic text is wrong, and instead of ‘بحماية’ perhaps we should put ‘بجماعة’; and in this case the translation should be, “…are particular to the group of the Christian and the rest of the non-Muslim subjects.”

[4] My translation.

[5] كامل صالح نخلة، سلسلة تاريخ البطاركة (دير السريان، الطبعة الثانية، ٢٠٠١)، الحلقة الخامسة، ص ١٥٩ـ ١٦٠

[6] The Armenian intelligentsia drafted the Nizâmnâme-i Millet-i Ermeniyân in 1860, and ensured that the Ottoman autorities ratify it in 1863.

[7] In their literature, the Armenians refer to the Armenian Millet Constitution and Armenian Millet Council as the Armenian National Constitution and Armenian National Council.

[8] Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1988), pp. 38-39.

[9] Ibid, pp. 41-42.

[10] Ibid, p. 32.

[11] كامل صالح نخلة، سلسلة تاريخ البطاركة (دير السريان، الطبعة الثانية، ٢٠٠١)، الحلقة الخامسة، ص ١٦٣

[12] For an English translation of the Armenian National Constitution, see: Armenia, Travels and Studies by H. F. B. Lynch (London, New York : Longmans, Green, and co., 1901), Volume II, pp. 445-467.

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