Ediz Hazir explains how Lausanne marked the end of a French religious order’s attempt to unify the churches of the Ottoman Empire.

Ediz is pursuing a joint PhD in History at Charles University in Prague / University of Groningen.

In 1862 a French religious order, the Assumptionists, launched their Mission d’Orient with the aim of unifying the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and with the blessing of Pope Pius IX. The Mission built on earlier Roman Catholic missionary activities and the amicable relations between the Sublime Porte and the Roman Catholic West – and, of course, the privileges enjoyed under the capitulations and the protégé system negotiated by France. Founded in Nîmes by Emmanuel d’Alzon in 1845, the Augustinians of the Assumption’s mission combined religious and political goals: limiting Russia’s hold over Ottoman Orthodox, and repairing the centuries-old Photian Schism. This controversy dated back to the fourth Council of Constantinople (869-870), originating in the failure of Rome and Constantinople to see eye to eye over the appointment of Photius as the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Although Fr. d’Alzon believed that the mission had to be established in Constantinople, the Holy See insisted that it begin in Plovdiv, and then (from 1867) Edirne. The consolidation of the Ottoman Empire was also crucial for the mission’s success, as both the Pope and the Sultan feared Russian expansion into the Balkans, as well as the rise of Pan-Slavism. [1] Assisted by their female branch (the Oblates), the Assumptionists focused on training local clergy, establishing dispensaries and orphanages, and setting up educational institutions that followed a Western curriculum, while respecting local traditions and values. The Assumptionists nonetheless embodied  French Roman Catholic religio-cultural imperialism and provided a bridgehead to inward French investment.

After the Treaty of Berlin (1878) the Assumptionists’ focus shifted toward Anatolian Christians, with various institutions set up between 1867 and 1914, from Edirne to Trabzon. With the Balkan Wars, however, a decline set in, as the demography of Anatolia underwent a drastic shift in response to the Turkish nationalism promoted by the Committee of Union and Progress, the arrival of Muslim refugees from the Balkans, and the 1913 population exchange between the Ottoman Empire, Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria. The unilateral abolition of the capitulations by the CUP in 1914 brought the French protectorate of Roman Catholics to an end. All French institutions were closed (with the exception of churches, hospitals, and orphanages) and their staff, including French missionaries, expelled.


In 1919  the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith allowed the Assumptionists to return to the “Orient”.[2] The country to which they returned was different from that which they had left just four years before, and the Greek occupation of western Anatolia in 1919 presented new challenges. During this period and the ensuing Greco-Turkish War Assumptionist institutions were occupied by French, British, Greek, and Turkish troops. [3] Revolts against Turkish national forces increased hostility towards Christians. A few years later the Lausanne Treaty and the population exchange of 1924 drew a line under the Mission d’Orient. The Assumptionists and their Oblates slowly closed down their parishes, schools, and dispensaries. At the Holy See’s request, some remained in Istanbul, Zonguldak and Ankara, serving the Roman Catholics of Bursa and the Armenians of Konya.[4]

The rise of nationalism within the Empire – not only Turkish nationalism, but Armenian and Greek nationalisms as well – had the greatest impact on the treatment of different millets. Nationalist tendencies raised tensions between the Ottoman state and its Christian subjects as well as between the Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics. The degree of Assumptionist interaction with non-Catholic communities varied with denomination (Greek or Armenian), position within the hierarchy (clergy or laypeople), and geography. Armenian conversions to Roman Catholicism aroused the hostility of the Armenian Patriarchate. In 1888 the Armenian bishop in Bursa complained to the Ottoman vali about conversions to Roman Catholicism.[5]

From the moment the Assumptionists appeared on the scene the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Phanar sought to contain Roman Catholic influence over their community. This hostility was more of a factor in the capital than in rural areas, but could take a number of forms: threatening parents who sent their children to Assumptionist schools with ex-communication, complaining to Ottoman authorities about conversion attempts, accusing the Assumptionists of harbouring a pro-French political agenda, preventing recruitment to the Assumptionist seminaries, and even forbidding local shops to sell goods to the Assumptionists.[6]

The Assumptionists had not foreseen that the capitulations and protégé system would fall victim to Turkish nationalism between 1913 and 1924, destroying the very socio-political framework within which they hoped to achieve union.

In the end, the Mission d’Orient failed for two reasons. Eastern Christians refused to recognize either Vatican supremacy or the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. Even though Leo XIII (1878-1903) sought to facilitate a transition by representing Orthodox as “dissident” rather than “schismatic”, the interwoven nature of religion and ethnicity within the millet system meant that both Greek and Armenian communities guarded their hard-won autonomy and privileges. Thanks to forced relocation of Orthodox Christians between 1912 and 1924 there were also far fewer Orthodox Christians to convert to Roman Catholicism. At a time when Papal Infallibility was being challenged in Europe the Vatican turned toward the Orient to strengthen its authority and profit from strong political support from France. Thus I would argue that the Assumptionists believed in the success of the Mission d’Orient, despite Orthodox skepticism.

When it comes to relations with France, the Holy See, and the Ottoman Empire, each religious minority (Greeks, Armenians, Jews) has developed its own historiography, while Turkish scholars tend to overlook Roman Catholics as a  “foreign” community, focusing instead on the emancipation of religious minorities or the development of secularism in Turkey. My Ph.D. dissertation, entitled “The Roman Catholic Congregation in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey (1876 to 1955): between Rome, Istanbul, and Paris,” examines the socio-economic, political, and religious-cultural transformation of Istanbul’s Roman Catholic Congregation, from the Ottoman Constitution of 1876 to the Istanbul Pogrom (1955). By taking the Assumptionists as a case study, I seek to understand how this congregation was utilized by both the Vatican and the French state to advance their interests in Anatolia. French Roman Catholic missionary institutions were a force for French cultural imperialism in the Near East, and were tasked with improving the Eastern Orthodox–Roman Catholic relations in cooperation with the Western powers.

I hope to integrate the Roman Catholics’ socio-economic, political, and religious-cultural transformation in Euro-Ottoman transnational history, recognizing the important role they played in Ottoman modernization, the interaction of the Ottoman Empire/Turkey with the Western powers, and their influence over the Ottoman Christians’ attempts to gain equal social and civil rights. Despite the failure to achieve union, the Assumptionist mission was not a complete failure: it brought about a rapprochement between the Eastern and Western Churches, with the Assumptionist journal Échos d’Orient an instrument of knowledge exchange between the two. Even today, a century after Lausanne, the Assumptionist presence in Turkey remains.


[1] Charles A. Frazee, Catholics and Sultans: The Church and the Ottoman Empire, 1453-1923 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 262.

[2] Xavier Jacob, “L’Assomption en Turquie”, in Bernard Holzer, ed., L’Aventure Missionnaire Assomptionniste (Lyon, 2000), p. 316.

[3] Ibid., p. 259.

[4] Julian Walter, The Assumptionists and their Eastern Apostolate (1863-1980) (Paris, 1980),  p. 45.

[5] Jacob, “Turquie”, p. 282.

[6] Ibid., pp. 284-292.