The Ottoman Empire was one of the largest empires in the history of the world, stretching from North Africa to Eastern Europe along the Mediterranean bay region. The Ottoman Turks ruled over a large population of non-Muslims for many centuries. They dealt with their religiously diverse populations using a high degree of toleration and low levels of persecution.
The Millet System
Each religious community was separated from other groups and organized into a millet, or nation. These were not based on national origins, but rather on religion: for example, all Jews in the empire belonged to the Jewish millet. Each millet kept its own schools, communal buildings and even its own court system. The millet system enabled each religious group to have more autonomy over its own affairs and also allowed the Ottomans to maintain a lower tax burden on the people.
The Ottoman Sultan Beyazit II issued an official decree to welcome the Jews into his empire. Settling mostly in the European portion of the empire, the Jews in the empire became known as Sephardic Jews, their name derived from the Hebrew word for Spain, which was the place of origin for many Jews because they were expelled from the country in 1492. The Sephardic Jews not only lived under the Ottoman Turks, they also were able to take an active role in society, working as doctors in the courts of the Ottoman sultans and in the Ottoman army. The Jews were free to establish their own printing presses and this allowed certain famous rabbis to publish commentaries on the Jewish scriptures.
Christians Under Ottoman Rule
Sultan Mehmed II's conquest of Constantinople in 1453 brought a large number of Christians into the empire. By 1530, 80 percent of the Europeans under Ottoman rule were non-Muslims. Orthodox Christians gained additional power in 1774 with the treaty of Kuchuk Kainardji, which gave the Russian government the right to provide political representation for the Orthodox Christians within the empire.
Preferencial Treatment of Muslims
Despite the high degree of religious tolerance under the Ottoman Turks, the empire did give preferential treatment to its Muslim population. For instance, non-Muslims had to pay an extra tax. But some view this as a military exemption tax for when Muslim soldiers went to battle. Also, until the final years of the empire, only Muslims were allowed to obtain high office in the government.
The worst persecution of non-Muslims was the practice of devshirme, which means “tribute of children.” This practice forced children out of the homes of non-Muslims to be raised as Ottoman Muslims.
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