Ottoman Reform Decree, 1856
The Imperial Reform Edict of Ottoman Sultan Abdulmejid I, appearing originally in 1856 and subsequently in this 1874 publication, promised equality of access to education, government appointments, military service, and administration of justice to all, regardless of religion, language, or race. In the Edict the sultan promised to establish "Provincial Councils" and "Communal Councils” that were to represent each religious community in formulation of imperial policy. Councils were to be headed by elected officials from the community, and arbitrary fees assessed of congregants by church officials were abolished. The sultan also promised the right of foreigners to own property. The Edict was published in French, not Ottoman Turkish. It broadened the rights earlier promised Protestants in the Empire in a decree of 1850. As earlier, British diplomats pressured the sultan to make reforms on behalf of Protestants as well as Roman Catholics, which the British minister Lord Stratford de Redcliffe argued were a concession for Britain’s and France’s sacrifice on the Ottoman Empire’s behalf in the Crimean War 1853-1856, which resulted in the Ottoman entry to European family of nations. But Abdulmecid took these complaints seriously, especially since he continued to seek the support of the Western European powers. This Edict, confirming the Empire’s organization into semi-autonomous religious communities, or millets, proved destabilizing by helping to legitimize Armenian nationalism and encouraging foreign influence. This source is also part of a Long Teaching Module by Heidi Morrison, "Education in the Middle East, 1200-2010."
1. The guarantees promised…to all the subjects of my Empire, without distinction of classes or of religion, for the security of their persons and property and the preservation of their honour, are today confirmed and consolidated, and efficacious measures shall be taken in order that they may have their full and entire effect.
2. All the privileges and spiritual immunities granted by my ancestors ab antiquo, and at subsequent dates, to all Christian communities or other non-Muslim persuasions established in my empire under my protection, shall be confirmed and maintained.
Every Christian or other non-Muslim community shall be bound, within a fixed period, and with the concurrence of a Commission composed ad hoc of members of its own body, to…examine into its actual immunities and privileges, and to discuss and submit to my Sublime Porte the reforms required by the progress of civilization and of the age….
4. The property, real or personal, of the different Christian ecclesiastics shall remain intact; the temporal administration of the Christian or other non-Muslim communities shall, however, be placed under the safeguard of an Assembly to be chosen from among the members, both ecclesiastics and laymen, of the said communities.
5. In the towns, small boroughs and villages, where the whole population is of the same religion, no obstacle shall be offered to the repair, according to their original plan, of buildings set apart for religious worship, for schools, for hospitals, and for cemeteries….
In the towns, small boroughs, and villages where different sects are mingled together, each community, inhabiting a distinct quarter, shall, by conforming to the above-mentioned ordinances, have equal power to repair and improve its churches, its hospitals, its schools, and its cemeteries. When there is a question of the erection of new buildings, the necessary authority must be asked for through the Sublime Porte, which will pronounce a Sovereign decision according to that authority…. My Sublime Porte will take energetic measures to ensure to each sect, whatever be the number of its adherents, entire freedom in the exercise of its religion.
6. Every distinction or designation tending to make any class whatever of the subjects of my Empire inferior to another class, on account of their religion, language, or race, shall be for ever effaced….
As all forms of religion are and shall be freely professed in my dominions, no subject of my Empire shall be hindered in the exercise of the religion that he professes, nor shall be in any way annoyed on this account. No one shall be compelled to change their religion. The Imperial Government is entitled to...establish that not only has no Christian or other non-Muslim subject been forced to convert to Islam, but also that the very idea of Muslim proselytism is unknown in the Ottoman Empire.
The nomination and choice of all functionaries and other employees of my Empire being wholly dependent upon my Sovereign will, all the subjects of my Empire, without distinction of nationality, shall be admissible to public employments, and qualified to fill them according to their capacity and merit, and conformably with rules to be generally applied.
9. All the subjects of my Empire, without distinction, shall be received into the Civil and Military Schools of the Government if they otherwise satisfy the conditions as to age and examination which are specified in the organic regulations of the said schools. Moreover, every community is authorized to establish Public Schools of Science, Art, and Industry. Only the method of instruction and the choice of professors in schools of this class shall be under the control of a Mixed Council of Public Instruction, the members of which shall be named by my Sovereign command….
11. All commercial, correctional, and criminal suits between Muslims and Christian or other non-Muslim subjects, or between Christians or other non-Muslims of different sects, shall be referred to mixed tribunals. The proceedings of these tribunals shall be public. The parties shall be confronted, and shall produce their witnesses, whose testimony shall be received, without distinction, upon an oath taken according to the religious law of each sect.
12. Suits relating to civil affairs shall continue to be publicly tried, according to the laws and regulations, before the Mixed Provincial Councils, in the presence of the Governor and Judge of the place. Special civil proceedings, such as those relating to successions of others of that kind, between subjects of the same Christian or other non-Muslim faith, may, at the request of the parties, be sent before the Councils of the Patriarchs or of the communities….
15. Proceedings shall be taken, with as little delay as possible, for the reform of the penitentiary system as applied to houses of detention, punishment, or correction, and other establishments of like nature, so as to reconcile the rights of humanity with those of justice. Corporal punishment shall not be administered, even in the prisons, except in conformity with the disciplinary regulations established by my Sublime Porte, and everything that resembles torture shall be entirely abolished….
17. A complete law shall be published, with as little delay as possible, respecting the admission into and service in the army of Christian and other non-Muslim subjects.
Proceedings shall be taken for a reform in the constitution of the Provincial and Communal Councils, in order to ensure fairness in the choice of the deputies of the Muslim, Christian, and other communities, and freedom of voting in the councils….
18. It shall be lawful for foreigners to possess landed property in my dominions, conforming themselves to the laws and police regulations, and bearing the same charges as the native inhabitants, and after arrangements have been made with foreign powers.
19. The taxes are to be levied under the same denomination from all the subjects of my empire, without distinction of class or of religion….
22. The heads of each community and a delegate designed by my Sublime Porte shall be summoned to take part in the deliberations of the Supreme Council of Justice on all occasions which might interest the generality of the subjects of my Empire. They shall be summoned specially for this purpose by my Grand Vizier. The delegates shall hold office for one year; they shall be sworn on entering upon their duties….
24. Steps shall also be taken for the formation of roads and canals to increase the facilities of communication and increase the sources of the wealth of the country. Everything that can impede commerce or agriculture shall be abolished. To accomplish these objects means shall be sought to profit by the science, the art, and the funds of Europe, and thus gradually to execute them….
From the preceding examination, it is possible to conclude that regarding certain points, in particular as regards religious tolerance, the reform is entirely accomplished; and that others, such as the principles of civil equality, it is a step only, but certainly the most difficult, by triumphing over repugnance and prejudices which seemed to be an invincible obstacle to the establishment of new institutions….
Gregory Aristarchis. Législation ottoman. 1874. “Ottoman Reform Edict of 1856.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottoman_Reform_Edict_of_1856. Accessed June 4, 2021.