МИСИОНЕРИ в Русе и Видин през 1856

Religious Conversion in Early Post-Ottoman
Bulgaria: A Case Study of Ruse
Under Ottoman rule, conversion to Islam took place in the Balkans in various
forms often described as forced, voluntary or “conversion for convenience.” Islamic
law, however, strictly forbade apostasy for Muslims, who risked the death penalty.
Although the Ottoman reform of 1844 banned the execution of apostates from
Islam and that of 1856 declared freedom of religion, Muslim conversion was carried out discreetly. In 1878, the establishment of the Bulgarian nation-state paved
the way for potential conversion from Islam to Christianity. This study examines
the conversion of Muslims, Catholics, and to a lesser extent, Jews, to Bulgarian
Orthodoxy and Protestantism in the city of Ruse. It shows that apostasy was a
result of a complex interplay of loyalties, political dynamics, and self-interests
rather than purely religious principles. Specifically, it argues that Muslims and, to a
lesser extent, Jews, perceived conversion as a way of developing a Bulgarian identity, whereas Catholic conversion to Orthodoxy was mostly marriage-based and did
not necessarily entail an intention to achieve a Bulgarian national identity. Moreover, the way that the Bulgarian Church processed the petitions shows a continuity
from the practices that the Ottomans used when Christians and Jews converted to
Islam during the Tanzimat Era.
The Ottoman Empire managed ethnic and religious diversity through flexible
administrative practices, generally referred to as the “millet system,” which is
a form of self-rule through religious institutions. In legal cases not involving
any Muslims, non-Muslims were under the civil and religious jurisdiction of
their respective millet whereas Muslims regulated themselves through Islamic
law (s¸eriat). The millets were organised along confessional lines as Muslim,
Orthodox Christian, Armenian, and Jewish with the later additions of Catholic and Protestant millets in the nineteenth century. The millet authority, however, was not centralised until the late Ottoman period.1 This relative
*Dr Mehmet Celik is a Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian
Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712, USA.
1. About the millet system, see K. Barkey, “Rethinking Ottoman Management of Diversity:
What Can We Learn for Modern Turkey?,” in Democracy, Islam and Secularism in Turkey,
ed. A. Kuru and A. Stepan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 12–31, and
© 2020 Religious History Association
Journal of Religious History
Vol. ••, No. ••, 2020
doi: 10.1111/1467-9809.12641
religious tolerance contributed, in large part, to the longevity of the Ottoman
rule in the Balkans and allowed for local autonomy.
Under Ottoman rule, conversion to Islam was a common practice that
some scholars describe as voluntary, others describe it as forced, and still,
others call it “conversion for convenience.”2 As Islam strictly forbade apostasy for Muslims in Ottoman society, Muslims rarely converted, and if they
did, they risked the death penalty. In 1844, however, the Sultan Abdülmecid
promised to ban the legal execution of apostates from Islam, which in theory,
paved the way for Muslim conversion to Christianity. The Reform Edict of
1856 officially declared freedom of religion, and thus ethnic communities
began establishing their own religious institutions.3
Beginning with the separation of the Church of Greece from the Greek
Patriarchate in Istanbul in 1833, national Orthodox churches — Serbian,
Bulgarian, Romanian, and Albanian — played a vital role in the process of
nation building in the Balkans.4 With nationalism, religion did not lose its
importance; instead, it became entwined with national identities through the
process of conversion and apostasy. Religious identity was linked to national
identity, at least to the extent that conversion to Islam and potential conversion from Islam to Christianity after 1844 meant a loss of identity or what
Selim Deringil calls “a deadly threat and insult to a self-conscious group.”5
In such a context of “religious nationalism,” Bulgarians gained their religious
independence from the Patriarchate in 1870 with the establishment of the
Bulgarian Exarchate. After the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–1878, the
national “liberation” from the Ottoman Empire followed the process of
Bulgarian nation building. The new Bulgarian principality formed in the
Ottoman Danube province and the transfer of power to Orthodox Bulgarian
Christians gradually took place.
Despite the legal changes of 1844 and 1856 that allowed Muslims to convert to other religions, the practice was carried out discreetly.6 The scale of
D. Goffman, “Ottoman Millets in the Early Seventeenth Century,” New Perspectives on Turkey, II (1994): 135–59.
2. For instance, see A. Minkov, Conversion to Islam: Kisve Bahası Petitions and Ottoman Social
Life, 1670–1730 (Leiden: Boston: Brill, 2004); A. Zhelyazkova, “Islamization in the Balkans as
a Historiographical Problem: The Southeast European-Perspective,” in The Ottomans and the
Balkans: A Discussion of Historiography, ed. F. Adanir and S. Faroqhi (Leiden: Brill, 2002),
223–66; M. Todorova, “Conversion to Islam as a Trope in Bulgarian Historiography, Film and
Fiction,” in Balkan Identities: Nation and Memory, ed. Maria Todorova (New York: New York
University Press, 2004), 129–57; and S. Deringil, Conversion and Apostasy in the Late Ottoman
Empire (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
3. Deringil, Conversion and Apostasy in the Late Ottoman Empire, 7.
4. See P. M. Kitromilides, “The Legacy of the French Revolution: Orthodoxy and Nationalism,” in The Cambridge History of Christianity, vol. 5, Eastern Christianity, ed. M. Angold
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 229–49; and P. M. Kitromilides, “Imagined
Communities and the Origins of the National Question in the Balkans,” in Enlightenment,
Nationalism, Orthodoxy: Studies in the Culture and Political Thought of South-Eastern Europe, ed. P. Kitromilides (Aldershot: Variorum 1994), 149–92.
5. Deringil, Conversion and Apostasy in the Late Ottoman Empire, 4.
6. Ussama Makdisi’s study of religious conversion in Lebanon draws attention to the fact that
Muslims who converted to Maronite or Greek Catholic belief never dwelt on their conversion
publicly and the churches also did not openly celebrate their gains. U. Makdisi, Artillery of
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Muslim conversion to Christianity in the Balkans remained unknown until
the collapse of Ottoman rule in 1878. The literature on religious conversion
in Bulgaria has depended heavily on the cases of conversion to Islam or
between different sects of Christianity.7 Using the records of the Bulgarian
Orthodox Church and Protestant missionaries, this case study explores religious conversions in the city of Ruse (Rusçuk in Turkish), the capital of the
Ottoman Danube Province in the early post-Ottoman period. It mainly
focuses on conversion from Islam to Bulgarian Orthodoxy and Protestantism,
with an emphasis on the converts’ motivations and the conversion process. It
shows that religious minorities, Muslims in particular, perceived conversion
as a means to obtain a Bulgarian national identity and, thus, converted
openly to Bulgarian Orthodoxy in public ceremonies for baptism, a phenomenon unheard of under Ottoman rule.8 As such, conversion was also a process of denationalising, or stripping individuals of their existing national and
religious identities along with the associated legal protections. Some Muslims, and to a lesser extent, Jews, converted to Bulgarian Orthodox Christianity for the privileges associated with being part of the dominant religious
group and, in some cases, for safety and convenience. When providing reasons for conversion, petitioners, regardless of their religious background,
almost identically stated their long-term residency in Bulgaria and with
Bulgarians, their ability to speak the Bulgarian language, familiarity with
Bulgarian traditions, and their desire to be “Bulgarian.” Conversion from
Catholicism to Bulgarian Orthodoxy, however, was mostly marriage-based
and did not necessarily entail an intention to achieve a Bulgarian national
identity but rather to marry an Orthodox Christian.
Most of these conversions took place through individual petitions, with a
clear statement of the petitioner’s free will, rather than a forced mass conversion. The petitions initially passed through the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the
Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the official bureaucracy of the government.
Next, they were processed according to the religious background and age of
petitioner, the number of individuals involved in the petitions, and other
aspects such as documenting marital status in cases of a marriage-based conversion or proving adamant intent for conversion. In cases of Muslim conversion to Bulgarian Orthodoxy, this case study shows that the Bulgarian church
followed the same conversion procedure that the Ottomans used when Christians converted to Islam. In that system, the religious authorities established
Heaven: American Missionaries and Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), 120.
7. For the Islamization of Bulgarians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see
M. Ivanov, “Dokumenti za Isliamizatsiata v Kusnata Osmanska Imperia: Zakonova praktika i
roliata na Bulgarskata ekzarhiia,” in Collegium Historicum, Tom 2 (Sofia: Universitetsko
izdatelstvo, 2012), 578–88.
8. After 1856, there was a degree of conversion to Christianity from Islam, but they were mostly
the cases of crypto-Christians or those who reverted to Christianity after converting to Islam.
See, Deringil, Conversion and Apostasy in the Late Ottoman Empire, 111–55. In this study, the
petitions of the Muslim converts and other related sources show no indication of their Christian
background or secret practice of Islam after conversion.
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councils composed of Muslim and Christian authorities to which converts
would declare that the conversion was of their free will.
At the same time, the American Methodist Episcopal Church (centred in
Northern Bulgaria) and Armenian Protestants achieved a degree of success in
their proselytisation efforts.9 Unlike Bulgarian Orthodoxy, Protestantism was
not associated with any political or social privileges in the new Bulgarian state.
On the contrary, as a religious minority, being Protestant increased the potential risk of persecution by Orthodox conservatives and the regime itself. Therefore, conversion to Protestantism mostly took place for religious reasons. The
Methodist Church focused its efforts on Orthodox Bulgarians, while Armenian
Protestants focused on Muslims. Protestant missionaries opened schools,
churches, and printing houses, and distributed Bibles throughout the region.
These activities eventually led to sectarian violence between the Protestant and
Orthodox communities. The Protestants often appealed to the British government to protect their members from the persecution of Bulgarian Orthodox
conservatives and the regime itself. In the early post-Ottoman period, the
Russian provisional government was particularly unwilling to tolerate the Protestants’ missionary activities in Bulgaria. However, following the departure of
the Russians, beginning in the summer of 1879, the Bulgarian national government gradually eased the pressure on the Protestant community on the promise
of guarantees of religious and civic freedoms for local religious minorities as
provisioned in the Berlin Treaty of 1878. Thus, Protestant missionary activities
gained momentum in subsequent years.
Religious Diversity in Ruse
Under Ottoman rule, a variety of religious and ethnic groups inhabited the
city of Ruse, located in present-day northern Bulgaria. Migration and conversion had continuously changed the ethnic and religious makeup of the city.
Following their fourteenth-century conquests, the Ottomans settled in the
Dobrudzha region in large numbers and mixed with the local population, in
particular, Slavic-speaking Christians. In the seventeenth century, Turkishspeaking Muslims, Slavic-speaking Orthodox Christians, and Armenians
were the three major communities in Ruse. The city also accommodated
many other small groups including Greeks, Vlachs, Roma, and foreign merchants, primarily from Dubrovnik. During the Russo-Ottoman War of
1768–1774, Ruse briefly came under Russian rule, but the Ottoman Empire
regained the city following the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774. The Ottoman government subsequently invested in Ruse to develop the city as a military and commercial centre. In the late eighteenth century, Jewish merchants
9. Beginning in 1857, the American Methodist Episcopal Church conducted its mission primarily in northern areas of the province (but centred in Ruse), while the Bulgarian Evangelical Society and the Bulgarian Mission of the American Board operated in the south. See Seventy-Eighth
Annual Report of the American Bible Society, Presented May 10, 1894, together with a list of
auxiliary societies and their offices and of Life Directors and Life Members of the Society Constituted during the Year (New York: American Bible Society, 1894), 127.
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also began to settle in Ruse from the surrounding cities.10 The influx of Muslim refugees from the Ottoman territories lost to Russia, mostly Circassians
and Tatars, and the recruitment of soldiers from other parts of the empire,
also altered the demographics and further contributed to the city’s diversity.11
In the nineteenth century, another group of newcomers to Ruse arrived
from the West, including merchants, diplomats, and religious missionaries.
The prospering economy attracted many foreign merchants, mainly from
Austria, Britain, and France, who opened local offices or permanently settled
in the city. After 1864, Ruse became an Ottoman administrative centre that
hosted foreign consulates that brought in many consuls, diplomats, and their
families. Major European countries, including Austria, Great Britain, France,
Russia, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Belgium, and Germany, established
consulates in the city.12 During this period, Protestant and Catholic missionaries also began to organise their religious missions in the Ottoman Balkans.
In 1857, the American Methodist Episcopal mission, for example, started in
Dobrudzha and was soon centred in Ruse.13 A small Catholic church opened
in 1858, under the administration of the bishop of Bucharest.14 These foreigners were significant additions to the historically mixed city population.
The Rise of Bulgarian Orthodoxy
In the early 1860s, Bulgarian elites in Ruse sent multiple petitions to the governor in Silistra, refusing to pay taxes to the Patriarchate and demanding the
removal of the Greek bishop Sinesius.15 The so-called “church question” had
created tensions between the two Orthodox Christian communities. Without
a comprehensive solution, tensions continued to simmer during the reforms
of Midhat Pasha, a progressive Muslim-Ottoman governor of the Danube
province. To thwart the Bulgarian nationalist movement, Midhat Pasha
supported Bulgarian religious autonomy. Even before the establishment of
the Bulgarian Exarchate in 1870, on 6 February 1865, the Ottoman sultan
issued a decree granting Bulgarians in Ruse a specific form of self-government, the Bulgarian National Church Parish (Bulgarskata Tsurkovna
Narodna Obshtina). The obshtina was not a cultural institution, but a specific
form of religious self-rule, serving primarily as an intermediary between
Bulgarian Orthodox inhabitants and the state. It became a representative
10. Z. Keren, The Jews of Rusçuk: From Periphery to Capital of the Tuna Vilayeti (Istanbul:
ISIS Press, 2011), 47.
11. K. Karpat, “Ottoman Urbanism: The Crimean Emigration to Dobruca and the Founding of
Mecidiye, 1856–1878,” International Journal of Turkish Studies 3, no. 1 (1984–85): 1–25, and
Nedim _
Ipek, _
Imparatorluktan Ulus Devlete Göçler (Trabzon: Serander, 2006).
12. Reports Relative to British Consular Establishments: 1858–1871, vol. 3 (London: Harrison
and Sons, 1872), 29.
13. Annual Report of the American Bible Society, vol. 78 (New York: American Bible Society,
1894), 127.
14. F. Kanitz, Donau-Bulgarien und der Balkan: Historisch-Geographisch-Ethnographische
Reisestudien Aus Den Jahren 1860–1876, II. Band (Leipzig: Verlagsbuchhandlung Von Hermann Fries, 1877), 18.
15. For the petitions, see T. Sahara, An Eastern Orthodox Community During the Tanzimat:
Documents from a Register of the Bulgarian Society in Ruse 1860–1872 (Tokyo: KSI, 1997).
© 2020 Religious History Association
body of the urban population in charge of maintaining churches, regulating
religious affairs, and economic and social relations with the authorities.16 It
was a drastic shift from the Ottoman millet system in which the Greek Patriarchate held strong authority over the Orthodox Christian community. The
obshtina, on the other hand, undermined the authority of the Greek Patriarchate, as the Bulgarian community began regulating its own religious affairs
and thus created tensions between two Christian communities. In 1865, the
obshtina banned the Greek bishop Sinesius from their church and even
forced him to leave the city. Sinesius, however, insisted on staying in his
position. Large crowds of Bulgarians protested Sinesius and forced him to
leave, but he found refuge in the Ottoman governor’s residence (konak). Settling the issue, Midhat Pasha sided with the Bulgarians rather than
attempting to restore Sinesius to his position; however, he asked the protesters to allow Sinesius to return to his house.17
On 11 March 1870, the Ottoman sultan issued a decree recognising the
Bulgarian Exarchate in Istanbul.18 However, when the Exarchate made efforts
to extend its authority over Orthodox Bulgarians, it often came into conflict
with the Greek Patriarch. Orthodox Christians had to decide to which church
they belonged, and dissension between Bulgarians and Greeks led to a physical confrontation in Ruse on New Year’s Day, 1873. As a result, the Greek
minority community segregated themselves entirely from the Orthodox
Church in Ruse and constructed their own chapel.19 By the Russo-Ottoman
War of 1877–1878, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Ruse was well
institutionalised, and the religious leader Mitropolit (Orthodox diocesan
bishop) was an influential political figure.
During the war of 1877–1878, some Bulgarian newspapers began
reporting cases of Muslim conversion to Bulgarian Orthodox Christianity.
Bulgarin, a local Bulgarian-language newspaper, for example, recounted a
story that eight Turks in the village of Novo Selo near Turnovo
(an ethnically mixed community) found refuge in the house of the Bulgarian
priest. After living with the priest for several months, they converted to
Orthodox Christianity.20 The motivation for the religious conversion, or
priest’s motivation to rescue his neighbours is unclear, but the priest took the
risk of sheltering his Turkish neighbours rather than cooperating with the
Russians and armed Bulgarians. The same newspaper reported another conversion in the months after the surrender of Ruse, in which a Muslim
converted to Orthodox Christianity and took the name Alexander. Allegedly,
his godfather was the Russian general and governor, Timochev.21 These
16. R. Gavrilova, Bulgarian Urban Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
(Cranbury, NJ: Susquehanna University Press, 1999), 123–24.
17. M. Petrov, “Tanzimat for the Countryside: Midhat Pasha and the Vilayet of Danube,
1864–1868” (PhD diss., Princeton University, 2006), 342.
18. D. Kiminas, The Ecumenical Patriarchate: A History of Its Metropolitanates with Annotated
Hierarch Catalogues (Rock Ville, MD: Borgo Press, 2009), 21.
19. Kanitz, Donau-Bulgarien und der Balkan, 18.
20. Bulgarin, Issue 3, 15 October 1877, 2.
21. Bulgarin, Issue 48, 22 April 1878, 3–4.
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conversions resemble the Armenian conversions that Deringil calls “conversion for survival,” which occurred in Anatolia during the Armenian massacre
of 1895–1897. Armenian conversion to Islam did not receive official recognition from the Ottoman government; the authorities argued that it resulted
from the fear of attacks and, thus, would not be permissible.22 In the case of
Muslim conversion to Bulgarian Orthodoxy during the war of 1877–1878,
there was no fully formed Bulgarian or Russian government to take a stance
on the issue of religious conversion, so the Bulgarian church itself approved
these conversions.
During the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–1878, the city of Ruse remained
under Ottoman control, and the peaceful surrender of the city after the armistice prevented large-scale violence and created circumstances conducive to
the cohabitation of Turks, Bulgarians, and other ethnoreligious groups. Other
cities, such as Sofia and Plovdiv, suffered severely from the war and its
accompanying violence and forced migration. Although scholars have
debated the number of Muslims who left Bulgaria during and immediately
after the war, Justin McCarthy’s study estimates a decline of roughly 800,000
(from 1,480,000 to 676,000), of whom 515,000 became refugees in the
remaining Ottoman territories and 289,000 who lost their lives.23 Considering the 53 per cent population loss, some Muslims could have perceived conversion to Orthodox Christianity either as a means of protection from
Russians and armed Bulgarians or as a way to secure their residency or property in the newly founded Bulgarian principality.
Nonetheless, Ruse did not experience a large-scale exodus during this transitional period. According to Ottoman sources from the last phase of Ottoman rule, the Muslim population numbered 12,156. The 1880 census
conducted by the Bulgarian authorities reports that figure as 10,252, indicating that the total number of Muslims decreased by less than 2,000, a predictable loss, given the conditions of the war and the turmoil in its aftermath.24
Thus, it is unlikely that the forced-migration had a significant influence on
religious conversion throughout Ruse.
After the war, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Ruse received numerous
petitions from Muslims, Catholics, and Jews for conversion. In some cases,
petitions were addressed to the governor instead of the Bulgarian church.
Tahir Mustafov from the village Tristenik (near Ruse), for example, sent a
petition to the governor on 17 March 1884, stating that he “had been
22. Deringil, Conversion and Apostasy, 215–16.
23. J. McCarthy, “Ignoring the People: The Effects of the Congress of Berlin,” in War and
Diplomacy: The Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 and the Treaty of Berlin, ed. M. Hakan Yavuz
and P. Sluglett (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2011), 438.
24. For the results of the Ottoman census, see British Documents on Foreign Affairs: Reports
and Papers from the Foreign Office Confidential Print, Part I, from the mid-Nineteenth Century
to the First World War, Series B, the Near and Middle East 1856–1914, vol. 5, ed. D. Gillard
(Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1984), enclosure in Document 45, 354. For
the 1880 census, see P. Angelova and V. Antonova, “Die Geburtsstadt von Elias Canetti,” in
Elias Canetti: Der Ohrenzeuge des Jahrhunderts (Ruse: Internationale Elias-Canetti-Gesellschaft, 2006), 16.
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practising the Muslim faith but for several years I have already been practising the Orthodox Christian faith that I accepted. I know the official language
of Bulgaria, and I would like to convert to Christianity, to become Bulgarian,
and to be baptised.” He then asked the governor for further consideration,
and the governor forwarded the request to the Mitropolit of Ruse.25
Tristenik was one of the most devastated villages during the war of
1877–1878, and the British humanitarian aid organisation, Turkish Compassionate Fund, appointed Mr. Dillon, one of the British consuls, to extend
their aid to the villages in Ruse because a failed harvest and severe weather
generated distress in the villages during the winter of 1879. Accompanied by
a local named Hasan Bey, Dillon helped 139 refugees in Tristenik.26 In the
Fund’s documents, Dillon recorded the extreme winter conditions that the returned Muslim refugees withstood in miserable hovels. These men and
women tried to survive the cold because the Bulgarian government prohibited woodcutting. Dillon stated: “The cold was so intense in these districts
and the snow so deep that during the night wolves ventured up to the house
doors and carried away the watchdogs. The Turks, being unarmed, cannot
shoot them.”27 Some, fortunate enough to return with their oxen and carts
provided employment and food for their less fortunate brethren. Considering
the living conditions, being Bulgarian provided some privileges such as
being able to carry arms and woodcutting. Muslims could gain status in the
new nation by converting to Orthodox Christianity. Mustafov’s petition shows
his intention of being Bulgarian and that he thought religion and language
formed an essential part of Bulgarian national identity at the time.
Similar to Mustafov’s case, a twenty-five-year-old Mehmed Ibrahimov
from Ruse explained why he wanted to convert: “I have been living with
Bulgarians for eleven years. I speak Bulgarian really well. All Bulgarians
around me say good things about me. I want to convert to Christianity.”28
Ibrahimov sent his petition to the church on 7 December 1894, and another
correspondence between the priest and Ibrahimov confirmed that he eventually converted on 9 January 1895, but only after the approval of the müftü
(head of the Muslim community in the city). 29 The müftü often intervened
to prevent Muslim conversion to Christianity even though he had no legal
authority to do so. In such cases, a commission of high-ranking officials,
including the governor, mayor, chair of the Ruse District Permanent Commission, the Bulgarian priest, and the müftü, addressed the petition. Alis¸an
Ibrahimov, another Muslim petitioner from the Ruse District, for instance,
was initially rejected by the church, as his intention was not clear. Three
months after his initial petition, priest Petur wrote to the Mitropolit that
Ibrahimov still wanted to convert and would not change his mind. Then, the
25. DA-R (Dûrzhaven Arhiv–Ruse), F 43 K op. 1, ae 91, p. 1.
26. H. M. Dunstan, comp., and W. Burdett-Coutts, ed., The Turkish Compassionate Fund: An
Account of Its Origin, Working, and Results (London: Remington and Co., 1883), 48.
27. Dunstan and Burdett-Coutts, The Turkish Compassionate Fund, 48.
28. DA-R, F 43 K op.1. a.e. 202, pp. 3 and 12.
29. DA-R, F 43 K op.1. a.e. 202, p. 3.
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commission met upon the governor’s invitation and processed the petition as
On account of the petition submitted by Alis¸an Ibrahimov, resident of Biala, to His
Eminence the Dorostol-Cherven Mitropolit, and forwarded to the governor of the
Ruse District, A. Kanazirski, dated December 23 of last year, under number 1959,
today, 11 January 1895, in presence of the governor of the Ruse District, on his
invitation, priest Iv. A. Popov, the müftü of the Ruse District Osman Nuri, the chair
of the Ruse District Permanent Commission Hr. Kasabov, and the mayor of the
Ruse Municipality G. Gubidelnikov showed up in his office. The abovementioned
petition was read and its contents were explained in Turkish to the müftü. After
that, the petitioner was summoned, and he presented himself personally. To the
questions addressed to him, the petitioner responded that he was a native of the village of …, Svhishtov District, that he had lived among Christians for a long time,
and that he himself was Muslim. Having been questioned about the reasons why he
wants to leave the Muslim faith and accept the Christian one, he responded that
there is no coercion, and that he wants to convert to Christianity from inner conviction. Upon everyone’s advice, he was handed over to the müftü, who requested to
question the man one more time in private. The man insisted on converting to
Christianity, and the müftü declared that the petitioner is adamant in his intention
and, therefore, in his role as the religious leader of the Muslims, he allows the petitioner to act according to his conscience.30
An Ottoman practice to emerge during the Reform Era or the Tanzimat
(1839–1876) was a council composed of Muslim and non-Muslim religious
authorities and officials, which carried over in processing conversion petitions. In the traditional Ottoman system, the only requirement for conversion
was the shahada, the verbal acceptance of the oneness of Allah and Muhammad as his prophet. During the Tanzimat, however, official councils
processed petitions, requiring converts to declare that the conversion was of
his or her own free will. The council then approved the case and recorded it
in a document called mazbata, which the council members signed and
sealed. This process aimed to remove any suspicions or doubts about all
parties.31 Ibrahimov’s case indicates that the Bulgarian church followed the
same process that the Ottomans used for conversion to Islam. In the 1880s
and 1890s, the Ottoman religious authorities continued the same procedure
in Kosovo when Christians petitioned to convert to Islam.32 Robert Donia’s
study also shows that after the Berlin Treaty of 1878, Bosnian Muslims
accused Austrians of forcibly converting Muslim girls to Catholicism and
requested that converts be required to consult with a religious authority from
each faith before their conversion became official.33
In providing reasons to convert to Orthodox Christianity, petitioners
mostly stressed how long they had been living in Bulgaria or with
30. DA-R, F 43 K op.1. a.e. 202, pp. 14–16.
31. Deringil, Conversion and Apostasy, 55.
32. H. Aslan, “The Religious Conversion (to Islam) in Kosovo (1800–1900),” in Balkans and
Islam: Encounter, Transformation, Discontinuity, Continuity, ed. A. Z. Furat and H. Er
(Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012), 26–27.
33. R. Donia, Islam under the Double Eagle: Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina 1878–1914
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 55.
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Bulgarians as well as how long they had already been practising the Orthodox Christian faith. Similar to the case of Tahir Mustafov, who claimed to be
practising Christianity for several years, and that of Ibrahimov who lived
with Bulgarians for eleven years, another petitioner, Mehmed Hasanov,
stated: “Nobody forced me to convert and it is my decision because I have
been living with Bulgarians for a long time.”34 On 2 March 1882, priest Ivan
wrote to the Mitropolit in Ruse that the church accepted Hasanov’s petition
and that he could convert and be baptised. Similarly, a twenty-two-year-old
Musa justified his desire to convert; he wrote that he had wanted to convert
for three years during which he had lived in Ruse. He liked Bulgarian traditions and followed them along with Bulgarians, and he chose Christianity
with his free will because he no longer believed in his previous faith (Islam)
which, he claimed, meant nothing to him. The Bulgarian church accepted his
petition on 30 August 1882, and then he converted.35
Petitions typically included information about the religious background of
the potential converts but rarely mentioned their ethnic backgrounds. Tahir
Mustafov, for example, was of Tatar background, and Muslims in Ruse were
predominantly of Turkish, Tatar, or Circassian origin. There was also the
Bulgarian-speaking Muslims or Pomaks living along the Rhodope Mountains
in Southern Bulgaria. Pomaks were in a better position to convert to
Bulgarian Orthodoxy and to achieve a Bulgarian national identity with their
knowledge of Bulgarian language, an important point made in most of the
petitions by other Muslims. Unfortunately, the documents of the Bulgarian
church in Ruse did not specify any document related to a Pomak convert. It
is likely that the Bulgarian church in Plovdiv, which accommodated a large
Pomak population, could have potentially documented their conversion.36
In some cases, Muslim converts asked the church if their children could
also convert. Dodusha Aliyeva, for example, lived in Silistra but then moved
to Tutrakan, sent a petition to the Mitropolit in Ruse. In her letter, she wrote:
“I have not heard from the church in regards to my petition for conversion
sent a couple of months ago. I have been going to the Bulgarian church regularly with my sons, Ali and Süleyman, and I want my children to convert to
Christianity.”37 On 29 January 1886, the church approved the conversion of
Dodusha’s children.
In another case of child conversion, a Bulgarian woman named Yordana
Georgieva applied to the Bulgarian church on 7 November 1894, for a
34. DA-R, F 43 K op.1. a.e. 65, p. 4.
35. DA-R, F 43 K op.1. a.e. 65, pp. 13–14.
36. In his study of the Pomak conversion during the Balkan Wars (1912–1913), Nuri Korkmaz
argues that the Bulgarian Church and state officials carried out a campaign to convert Pomaks to
Bulgarian Orthodoxy in order to ensure the homogeneity of the population, particularly in the
new borders of Bulgaria. Although the campaign was ineffective and failed to achieve the
expected conversion, after 1913, Pomaks began to be called “Bulgarian Muslims” officially. See
N. Korkmaz, “Shifting Physical Borders and Cultural Boundaries in the Balkans: The Conversion of Pomaks in Bulgaria During the 1912–1913 Balkan Wars,” in Uluslararası Balkan Tarihi
ve Kültürü Sempozyomu 6–8 Ekim 2016, Çanakkale Bildiriler Cilt II (Ankara: Pozitif Matbaa,
2017), 219–28.
37. DA-R, F 43 K op.1. a.e. 125, pp. 1–5.
© 2020 Religious History Association
thirteen-year-old Muslim girl whom she adopted in Ruse. In her petition,
Georgieva mentioned that she found a Muslim girl who lost her family thirteen years ago and the girl had been living with Georgieva since. Georgieva
also made it clear that the Muslim girl decided to convert to Christianity.38
Under Ottoman rule, the age of puberty was required for the legitimacy of
the conversion, but the concept of puberty (bülug) was contestable, and
underage petitioners were referred to parents or relatives to decide in case
minors insisted on conversion.39 Eyal Ginio’s study of religious conversion
in Salonica shows that Muslim religious authorities typically approved conversions by those over the age of ten.40 From the perspective of the Ottoman
Islamic law, Georgieva’s adopted child would not be considered a minor, but
since there was no record of the response from the Mitropolit, it is unknown
whether she converted.
Despite the increase in the Muslim conversions to Orthodox Christianity,
the majority of the conversions in Ruse occurred from Catholicism to
Bulgarian Orthodoxy. Maria Antonova, for example, converted to Orthodoxy
from Catholicism on 30 November 1893, with a ceremony performed by the
priest Ivan Koev and Mitropolit Grigori Chervenski.41 Similarly, a thirtyseven-year-old Roman Catholic merchant Ivan Krandjan petitioned the
Bulgarian church for conversion to Orthodoxy on 17 April 1895, and
received his baptism shortly after its acceptance.42 Most of these conversions,
however, took place through marriage. For example, on 10 May 1884, a
Catholic woman with the surname Davidova petitioned the Bulgarian church
in Ruse to marry a Bulgarian man named Petur Filipov, with whom she had
lived for eight years and had two children (though one of the children died).
The church sent her application to a higher authority in Silistra for a decision. On 26 July 1884, Mitropolit Grigorii in Ruse received the decision
from Silistra that if the couple proved that they were not married to anybody
else, and she converted to the Orthodox Church, he could perform the
In another case, a twenty-two-year-old Czech Catholic woman from
Austro-Hungary sent a request for conversion on 18 August 1884, to marry
Christian Orthodox Bulgarian Anoni Ivanov from Razgrad, from another
town within the District of Ruse. The church accepted her application and
baptised her on 20 August 1884.44 These two cases indicate that processing
times varied, depending on the complicated nature of the case. While the
application from the unmarried couple who had lived together for eight years
with two children took two-and-a-half months for processing, it took only
two days for the young Catholic woman without children.
38. DA-R, F 43 K op.1. a.e. 202, p. 27.
39. Deringil, Conversion and Apostasy, 55.
40. E. Ginio, “Childhood, Mental Capacity and Conversion to Islam in the Ottoman State,” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 25 (2001): 110.
41. DA-R, F43 op.1. a.e. 202, p. 7.
42. DA-R, F43 op.1. a.e. 202, pp. 9–10.
43. DA-R, F43 op.1. a.e. 202, pp. 2–6.
44. DA-R, F43 op.1. a.e. 202, pp. 8–10.
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In some cases, foreigners wanted to change their religion to marry
Bulgarian women, as was the case with Enriko Garolev, a Catholic Italian.
He applied to the church for conversion to marry Maria Stoyonav from
Razgrad. As part of the process, they needed to submit documents to prove
that they were not currently married. On 15 December 1884, Garolev promised to be a good Christian and was baptised in front of witnesses. The following day they were married.45
Motivations for marriage-based conversions did not necessarily include
developing a Bulgarian national identity although, according to the Bulgarian
constitution, marriage was one path to naturalisation and, thus, could be used
to gain Bulgarian citizenship. If a foreign woman married a Bulgarian man,
she would become a Bulgarian citizen while retaining citizenship in her home
country. However, a Bulgarian woman who married a foreign man would lose
her nationality unless, according to the law of the country of her husband, she
did not acquire his nationality by marriage alone.46 The church in Ruse also
received a small number of petitions from couples, neither of whom were
Bulgarian. For instance, a Catholic Hungarian woman and a Serbian Orthodox
man who had lived in Bulgaria for six years applied to the church to get married.47 In all of these cases, Catholic petitioners state their intent to marry an
Orthodox Christian, regardless of their Bulgarian background, and
naturalisation was unlikely the primary purpose of these marriages.
The city of Ruse also accommodated a sizeable Jewish community.48 The
Bulgarian church in Ruse received a small number of petitions from the Jewish residents. On 18 April 1895, a Jewish couple Bernard and Peppi Levrova,
for example, sent a petition to the Mitropolit to convert to Orthodox Christianity.49 In their letter, they claimed that they did not practise any religion
before and they were originally from Romania but had lived in Razgrad for
three years. Bernard stated: “I have been living in the town for three years
and I am a well-known person. I hope that the Mitropolit would not require
any other documentation.”50 Peppi added that she was well educated and old
enough (she was 40 and Bernard 48 years old) to make such a decision. She
also pointed out that nobody forced her to convert, and it was her free will.
She also mentioned that she had five children, all of whom already had
Christian names (Todor, Ivan, Ferdinand, Krum, and Alexandra), and that
she wanted her whole family to convert to Orthodox Christianity.51 In
response to this petition, the Bulgarian church issued a decree on 11 April
1895, that required all petitioners to state their previous confession clearly
45. DA-R, F43 op.1. a.e. 202, pp. 13–15.
46. For details about the Bulgarian nationality law, see T. Geshkoff, “An Analysis of the
Bulgarian Nationality Law,” American Journal of International Law 21, no. 3 (1927): 534–37.
47. DA-R, F43 op.1. a.e. 202, p. 7.
48. According to the first Bulgarian population census in 1880, the number of Jewish residents
in Ruse was 1943 (7.43 per cent of the district population). Angelova and Antonova, “Die
Geburtsstadt von Elias Canetti,” 16.
49. DA-R, F43 op.1. a.e. 202, p. 17.
50. DA-R, F43 op.1. a.e. 202, p. 18.
51. DA-R, F43 op.1. a.e. 202, pp. 20–22.
© 2020 Religious History Association
and to identify which religion they had taught their children. The decree also
made clear that the church would not accept petitions that did not meet this
requirement.52 Bernard and Peppi acknowledged that they were Jewish, but
did not practise any religion at that time53; On 30 April 1895, they converted
to Christianity and changed their names to Bogdan and Petrona, respectively.54 On 15 May 1895, another letter confirmed the conversion of this
couple as well as their children who already had Bulgarian names.55
Bulgarian Christians widely used all four names for their children, but the
name of Krum was particularly Bulgarian, as it refers to Khan Krum of Bulgars from the ninth century. Bernard and Peppi likely chose this name to
establish a cultural tie to Bulgaria.
In another case, on 18 November 1895, Abraham Nasipov, a twentyyear-old Jew from Varna, sent a petition to the Mitropolit in Ruse to convert to Orthodox Christianity. In his letter, he expressed his decision to
convert to Orthodox Christianity with his desire to be part of the
Bulgarian church. On 30 December 1895, the Bulgarian church, however,
rejected his request on the basis that he was too young to make such a
decision and suggested him to wait and petition again later without providing a specific age requirement.56 As the Bulgarian church approved
twenty-two-year-old Muslim Musa’s conversion, either the age requirement
for conversion was twenty-one, or the church used Nasipov’s age as an
excuse to reject his petition for other unknown reasons. One reason for the
rejection could be that the church prolonged the conversion process, as in
the case of Alis¸an Ibrahimov, to test how adamant the petitioners were in
their intention to convert.
This was a period of nation building in Bulgaria, and Bulgarian Orthodoxy
was a vital component of the Bulgarian national identity. The religious authorities would likely be selective about whom they would allow to convert to
Orthodox Christianity. The Bulgarian government itself selectively incorporated the chorbaci (wealthy Bulgarian Christians who were mostly proOttoman) into the new ruling based on their presumed loyalty to the
nation-state.57 It is possible to see similar suspicions towards those who
petitioned to convert to Bulgarian Orthodox Christianity and be
Bulgarian. Another possible reason for the rejection could be that the
Bulgarian church was concerned about the involvement of the rabbi in
Jewish conversions; in the conversion of Muslims to Orthodox Christianity,
the müftü were often involved in the petitions to prevent conversions from their
52. DA-R, F43 op.1. a.e. 202, p. 22.
53. DA-R, F43 op.1. a.e. 202, p. 23.
54. DA-R, F43 op.1. a.e. 202, p. 24.
55. DA-R, F43 op.1. a.e. 202, p. 25.
56. DA-R, F43 op.1. a.e. 202, pp. 33–35.
57. For examples of the chorbaci cases, see Bulgarin 56, 20 May 1878, 2–3.
© 2020 Religious History Association
Conversion to Protestantism
By the mid-nineteenth century, Protestant Christians, predominantly from the
United States and Britain, began to settle in the Ottoman Empire in relatively
larger numbers and the Ottoman government recognised the Protestant millet.
Many American missionaries opened schools and printing houses and notably contributed to the modernisation of education, one of the main goals of
the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms. Beginning in 1857, the American Methodist
Episcopal Church conducted its mission primarily in northern areas of the
Danube province (but centred in Ruse), while the Bulgarian Evangelical
Society and the Bulgarian Mission of the American Board operated in the
In 1857, the Methodist Church began its mission in the Danube region
with two missionaries but failed to gain ground in the first seven years. During this period, one of the missionaries returned to the USA, and the other
retired to Istanbul to engage in literary work. No real estate was acquired, no
school opened, and no church was established. From 1864 to 1870, another
Methodist missionary opened a church and a school in Tulcea in the northeastern part of the Danube province and translated religious texts into local
languages. In 1870, however, he abandoned the work in Tulcea and settled in
the city of Ruse with his new assistant. After fourteen years of unsuccessful
work, the church recalled the missionaries in 1871. The Methodist church
then sent another missionary, Mr Flocken, to the region in 1873 with an
assistant; later, two other missionaries joined them. In 1876, the first annual
meeting convened in Ruse where three missionaries with six native assistants
were regularly assigned to fields of labour. The Methodist missionaries
achieved moderate success with increased membership. However, the Balkan
Crisis of 1876 and the subsequent war between the Ottoman and Russian
Empires broke up the mission, and the Methodist missionaries left the region
at the onset of the war.59
After the war of 1877–1878, the treaties of San Stefano and Berlin created
a new autonomous Bulgarian principality in the northern part of the Ottoman
Danube province under a Russian provisional government. Although the
Ottoman Empire was relatively tolerant of religious diversity, Russian officers
and Bulgarian nationalists invested in Orthodox Christianity, and they did
not welcome Protestant missionaries in the new principality. Upon their
return, Methodist missionaries, for example, described the situation in
When, in 1879, the missionaries were returned for another ‘tentative’ occupation of
the field, the indifferent Turk had given place to the hostile Russian in the chief
58. Seventy-Eighth Annual Report of the American Bible Society, 127.
59. Manual of the Methodist Episcopal Church: A Quarterly Magazine of Information Concerning the Benevolent and Publishing Interests of the Church, namely: The Missionary Society;
The Sunday Schools; The Track Society; The Board of Church Extension; the Freedmen’s Aid
Society; The Board of Education; and The Book of Concern (New York: Phillips & Hunt,
January 1888), 16–17.
© 2020 Religious History Association
political power they had to encounter, and a conflict with the authorities was inevitable as soon as we undertook a seriously aggressive work.60
The tensions between Orthodox and Protestant Christians led to violence in
some towns. For instance, in June 1878, Bulgarians in the village Kayalidere
near Sliven, persecuted Protestants after Orthodox Bishop Sarafen of Sliven
exhorted the Bulgarians by saying “Protestantism will no longer exist in
Bulgaria.” The vekil (representative) of the Protestant community Hagop
Matteosian, asked the British consul for protection and described the abuses
against Protestants:
The Orthodox Bulgarians set upon the Protestants, beat them, destroyed their fields,
and plundered their houses while the affrighted families ran as soon as possible to
Adrianople to save their lives. The villagers, however, caught a few of the poor
people and treated them very shamefully. They took one aged woman and tied her
skirt over her head and beat her thus naked through the village. A younger woman
they stripped entirely and made her dance with a man whom they also stripped of
all his garments and to this spectacle, the inhabitants of five surrounding villages
were invited.61
In Ruse, however, there was a small number of Protestants, and they began
to settle in Ruse in large numbers only after the departure of the Russians.
In the years after the withdrawal of the Russians from local affairs, pressure on the missionaries eased. A report from Methodist Episcopal Church
stated that “the gradual unmasking of Russia, and the series of blunders by
which she had been eliminated from the domestic politics of Bulgaria, have
added greatly to the respect entertained for us and our work by the people to
whom we were sent.”62 In the early 1880s, the Methodist Episcopal Church
established four schools in Northern Bulgaria (in Ruse, Svishtov, Lofcha,
and Orhaniye), opened churches, and distributed the Protestant Bible in the
villages. In Ruse, they also had a bookstore and a depot for the religious
texts. As part of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Woman’s Foreign Mission Society sent Lina M. Schenck and Ella Fincham to Bulgaria, and they
led the school for girls in Ruse, which accommodated around twenty students. Additionally, another missionary, Clara Kailer, was in charge of the
Bible work in the city.63
The Methodist missionaries often described their students as “better citizens” with no restrictions upon their religious education. Thus, they claimed,
conversions continuously took place in these schools.64 Among the Methodist schools’ graduates, Peter Duenov, who attended the American Science
and Theology School opened in Svishtov, later became a charismatic spiritual/religious leader in Bulgaria. He developed a form of Esoteric
60. Manual of the Methodist Episcopal Church (January 1888), 17–18.
61. Turkey No. 42 (1878) Further Correspondence Respecting the Affairs of Turkey (London:
Harrison and Sons, 1878), enclosure in Document 62, 95.
62. Manual of the Methodist Episcopal Church (January 1888), 18.
63. Seventeenth Annual Report of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist
Episcopal Church for the Year of 1886 (Boston: Joseph W. Hamiltan Printer, 1886), 50.
64. Manual of the Methodist Episcopal Church (January 1888), 18.
© 2020 Religious History Association
Christianity so-called Bialo Bratstvo (White Brotherhood).65 Deunov served
as a preacher at the Methodist church in the village of Hotantsa and worked
as a teacher at the school operated by the church in 1887 and 1888.66
One of the female students of the Methodist school was Stephana Ivanova,
a Bulgarian widow with a child. Described as a “very interesting pupil,”
Ivanova came from a family who bitterly opposed the Protestants but,
according to the report, she begged for admission to one of the schools. She
studied Scriptures, and the church admitted her on probation because she
had been faithful and exemplary.67 Linda Schenck praised her students: “The
only decent homes and the only healthy children seen there are those of the
Protestants, while the ignorance, indecency, uncleanliness, and superstition
there is indescribable. We do not expect to make teachers of all our girls but
hope to make good wives and mothers.”68In addition to the academic goals
of the Methodist schools, Schenck emphasises their role in creating a society
of high morals in which the traditional role of women remained preserved
through religious education.
The success of the Methodist missionary work continued in the following
years. Another report from 1887 pointed out that six locally educated
preachers joined the Methodist mission and the missionary schools were still
in successful operation. According to the report, locals welcomed the missionaries in their villages and even petitioned for two more schools.69 These
missionaries often pointed to the growing sympathy toward Protestantism but
at the same time, complained that the motivations for Bulgarians were more
political than religious and they did not have an intention to adopt the Protestant faith even though they sent their children to the missionary schools.
The Methodist missionaries often faced opposition from the Bulgarian
government as associating with Protestantism meant one’s loss of identity.
The students in the missionary schools and those who converted to Protestantism were sometimes subjected to violent acts. On 8 February 1883, two
native missionaries in Ruse, Tomov, and Ekonomov, for example, were
beaten and thrown into prison. American-born missionaries did not suffer
from the violence, but their school was closed and sealed; the government
stated it would not allow Protestant propaganda.70 The approach of the government toward the missionaries did not change in the following years. In
another report from 1889, the Reverend Lounsbury stated that “the national
school inspector for the Rustchuk (Ruse) District said to me that our room
65. About Peter Deunov, see D. Lorimer, Prophet for Our Times: The Life & Teachings of Peter
Deunov (London: Hay House, 2015) and M. Kraleva, The Master: Peter Deunov, His Life and
Teaching (Sofia: Kibea, 2001).
66. In 1927, a big Protestant church was built in Hotantsa and it is still used by the local community. http://www.bialobratstvo.info (accessed 1 September 2017).
67. http://www.bialobratstvo.info, 49 (accessed 1 September 2017).
68. Seventeenth Annual Report of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, 50.
69. Manual of the Methodist Episcopal Church (January 1888), 18.
70. The Methodist Centennial Yearbook for 1884: The One-Hundredth Year of the Separate
Organization of American Methodism, edited by W. H. De Puy, DD (New York: Phillips &
Hunt, 1883), 61.
© 2020 Religious History Association
was more suitable for a chicken-coop than a schoolroom. The school can
never command the respect of the community while occupying its present
quarters. Protestant ‘rat-holes’ are not appreciated even in Bulgaria.”71 The
missionary schools were often closed but re-opened after negotiations with
the government and the Methodist church continued its mission in the
The Woman’s Foreign Mission Society also reported that the Protestant
faith of their students subjected them to persecution, hardships, rough treatment, and unemployment. The missionaries stated: “Pupils of our faith are
met with such opposition and detraction in the public schools, which are
governmental and connected with the ruling church, that our people prefer to
have their children grow up in ignorance rather than have them educated
under these influences.”72 The nation-state persecuted Bulgarian converts
who then separated themselves from the broader Bulgarian community
because of their religious differences. In other words, conversion of an
Orthodox Bulgarian to another faith created a marginalised group within the
Bulgarian community. Religious diversity and the feeling of heterogeneity
that went along with it prevented people from forming a collective Bulgarian
Another challenge for the Methodist Church was the missionary activities
of the Baptists from both the United States and Europe. The Baptist missionaries began to enter the Ottoman Danube province in 1866 and formed the
Bulgarian Baptist Movement. They found a place in this broader religious
context when the Bulgarian Evangelical Society was created in 1875.73
Johann Kargel (also known as Ivan Veniaminovich Kargel) had a leading
role in the Baptist movement in Bulgaria and later became one of the most
revered spiritual figures among the Baptists in Russia. Born in Caucuses to a
German father and an Armenian mother, Kargel developed his religious view
under the influence of German Baptist thinking.74 In the late 1870s, he
moved to Ruse for missionary work and served a pastor in the Baptist church
there. In 1883, he sent one of the Bulgarian converts Vasil Hristov Marchev
to Hamburg to seek a religious education. After his return in 1887, Marchev
became an influential figure among the Baptists in Ruse where the Baptist
Union of Bulgaria formed.75 In 1895, the church in Ruse had twenty-seven
members, and the Sunday school had forty students. The Baptists in Bulgaria
also established churches in Vidin, Kazanluk, and Lom Palanka. According
to an 1894 report from the American Baptist Missionary Union, the Baptist
71. Seventy-First Annual Report of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church
for the Year 1889 (New York: Methodist Episcopal Church, January 1890), 236.
72. Seventeenth Annual Report of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, 50.
73. T. Angelov, “The Baptist Movement in Bulgaria,” Journal of European Baptist Studies
1, no. 3 (2001): 8–18; A. W. Wardin, “The Baptists in Bulgaria,” Baptist Quarterly
34 (1991–1994): 145–58.
74. Gregory L. Nichols, The Development of Russian Evangelical Spirituality: A Study of Ivan
V. Kargel (1849–1937) (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 21.
75. Nichols, The Development of Russian Evangelical Spirituality, 81–82.
© 2020 Religious History Association
missionaries had thirty-nine converts in Ruse and Lom Palanka and six in
The Methodist missionaries often reported that their work in the village of
Hotantsa, where they had a church, was hindered by the proselyting influences of the Baptists. They often complained that locals did not understand
the denominational differences and the attendance in their meetings was
noticeably poor in the places where the Baptist mission was most active. At
the same time, they reported some conversions and the promising prospect
of their missionary work.77 A report from 1905 stated: “Greater evangelical
effort has been put forth in this city (Ruse) than in any other from our mission. Even the competition of Methodists and Baptists has not been sufficient
to remove the indifference of the people at large to evangelical truth.”78 As
the quote suggests, the Methodist and Baptist missionaries competed to
spread a similar faith on their missions. In Hotantsa, for example, Methodist
missionaries such as Pavel Todorov and Tikcheff visited every house in the
village proselytising for religious conversion and urging the few Baptist families to worship in their church, but they did not take any part in supporting
the pastor and the church benevolences.79
Although the Methodist and Baptist missionaries primarily focused on the
conversion of Orthodox Bulgarians, Armenian Protestants reached out to
many Muslims through the efforts of a Turkish convert, Muhammad Shukri
(Mehmed S¸ükrü in Turkish).80 Born into the prestigious Efendi class in Eastern Anatolia, Shukri descended from the Prophet himself and held the
respected title seyyid. He spent much of his early years travelling around with
his father — a mystic who could not settle down. In his childhood, Shukri
received an extensive education in Islamic theology while working as an
apprentice for an Armenian tailor, Garabed Efendi, to support his family. He
was raised as a mulla (Muslim scholar) and became a religious teacher in his
town. He also became involved in a Yologhli sect of heterodox Bektashi
order. During the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–1878, Russians occupied the
city of Erzurum and Shukri then left with his father for a neighbouring town.
While a guest at the house of an educated Turkish woman named Behcet
Hatun, he found a Turkish translation of the Gospel and began reading
it. With the help of his master Garabed, he found a Protestant Armenian
bookstore where he purchased a copy of the New Testament even though
Garabed belonged to the Armenian Gregorian church and did not like the
76. Eighty-First Annual Report with the Proceedings of the Annual Meeting Held at Saratoga
Springs, N.Y. May 28–29, 1895 (Boston: Missionary Rooms, 1895), 233.
77. Eighty-First Annual Report with the Proceedings of the Annual Meeting, 236.
78. Eighty-Seventh Annual Report of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church
for the Year 1905 (New York: Methodist Episcopal Church, 1906), 119–20.
79. Annual Report of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church for the
Year 1907 (New York: Board of Foreign Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church,
1908), 138.
80. This is one of the earliest existing autobiographies of Christians from a Muslim background
available in English. For the English translation of his biography from German, see R. Schafer,
A Muslim who Became a Christian: the Story of John Avetaranian, trans. J. Bechard (Hertford,
UK: Authors OnLine, 2010).
© 2020 Religious History Association
Protestants. After reading the Bible and attending a Protestant Armenian
school in Erzurum, he gradually came to believe in Protestant Christianity
and resigned from his position.81 In his autobiography, he writes:
After I had realised the right way was only in the Gospel, I soon considered it
wrong to be always proclaiming the honour of Muhammad outwardly as a mullah,
while I lived only for Jesus in private. It became clear to me that I could no longer
perform the Muslim prayer rites with a clear conscience.82
After his conversion, he named himself after John the Baptist and adopted
the last name Avetaranian, which means son of the gospel in Armenian. He
mastered the Armenian language and lived with Armenians for a while.
Then, he pursued a long missionary career from Chinese Turkistan to
Bulgaria to preach Christianity until his death in Germany in 1919.
In 1901, Shukri arrived in the Bulgarian city of Varna and began his missionary work with the help of Hagop Shahleved, the preacher at the Evangelical Armenian church and Teodorov, the Bulgarian Methodist preacher.83 He
travelled within Bulgaria and started preaching in towns and villages. In
1903, he established a small printing press in Shumla and began to publish
religious texts in Turkish and Persian, including a newspaper called Shahidul Haqaiq (Witness of Truth). He also established personal contact with
Muslims through his publications and visits to the bazaars and mosques.
Shukri and his wife also offered private lessons to Muslim students at their
house. While his wife taught German, Shukri mostly gave lessons in religion.
Another part of his missionary work was Bible distribution in which Muslim
converts such as Mirza Yahya assisted. Shukri spent most of his time
preaching, which he did three times a week. Every Sunday morning, he
preached at home in Turkish and in the afternoon at the Methodist chapel in
Turkish and Armenian.84 In Ruse, Shukri stayed with his close friend Armenian Pastor Kevorkian and preached at the Bulgarian Protestants’ chapel on
Friday evening. Among his followers, there were Bulgarians, Armenians, and
Jews, but the majority was Muslim. Muslims showed such a keen interest in
the meetings with Shukri that he writes: “I cannot describe the joy felt
amongst the brothers that so many Muslims had come. Many Muslims
showed their most heartfelt gratitude.”85 He then recounts several stories in
which Muslims in Ruse came to believe in Christianity:
In Rustchuk, in 1904, I again preached to Muslims for three years in a row. The listeners were not as numerous as the year before. However, I had the impression that
everyone who came had followed a real need in their heart. The 70-year-old Muslim who had accepted the word of truth the previous year came with his son, even
though he had to endure scorn and derision from fanatical Muslims throughout the
81. Schafer, A Muslim who Became a Christian, 1–6.
82. Schafer, A Muslim who Became a Christian, 38.
83. Schafer, A Muslim who Became a Christian, 122.
84. Schafer, A Muslim who Became a Christian, 129–30.
85. Schafer, A Muslim who Became a Christian, 132–3.
86. Schafer, A Muslim who Became a Christian, 139.
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Under Ottoman rule, these missionary activities remained restricted, although
the reforms decrees of 1844 and 1856 allowed Muslim conversion to Christianity. In July 1864, twelve Protestant Turks attempted to preach against
Islam in public inns, or hans, in Eminönü, a commercial centre in Istanbul.
However, the police forces arrested them, shut down their prayer houses, and
even seized the books and papers of the missionaries. They were subsequently imprisoned, as public preaching against Islam was considered an
open insult towards the Muslim community. The Grand Vizier Ali Pasha
even argued that the lives of the Turkish converts were in danger and that
they should be removed from the capital. The Ottoman government was particularly concerned about two of them, one who was a Muslim cleric (imam)
and the other an officer (zaptiye) in the security forces, who became public
figures. Regardless of the new laws, in the eyes of the Ottoman authorities,
conversion from Islam must be made impossible, arguing that religious propaganda was subjected to the supervision of the authorities.87
In Bulgaria, however, Shukri and other Turkish Protestants preached
against their former faith in public, distributed the Turkish translation of the
Bible, and published their journal, Shahid-ul Haqaiq, which continued to be
published in Bulgaria until the whole region was affected by the Balkan
Wars and the following Great War. In 1936, however, another Muslim convert, Hüseyin Nazif (after conversion Natanail Nazifov), began to publish
another newspaper with the same name until 1943.88
In early post-Ottoman Ruse, religious diversity and the dynamics of the new
nation-state changed the nature of religious conversions. In the 1880s and
1890s, most conversions occurred from Islam, Catholicism and, to a lesser
extent, Judaism to Bulgarian Orthodoxy, the dominant religion of the new
Bulgarian principality. Conversion meant not only changing one’s religion
but also becoming entangled in the national identity. In their requests to convert, petitioners often cited their long-term residency in Bulgaria or with
Bulgarians, familiarity with the Bulgarian Orthodox faith and its traditions,
and knowledge of the Bulgarian language. For many Muslims and Jews, the
conversion also meant becoming “Bulgarian,” whereas Catholic conversion
to Orthodoxy was primarily marriage-based.
Although conversion to Bulgarian Orthodoxy served the interest of the
new nation-state in creating a cohesive identity among its mixed population,
neither the Bulgarian church nor the Bulgarian government openly encouraged it. Conversions mostly took place by individual petitions to the
Bulgarian church and, in some cases, to the governor. The Bulgarian principality granted autonomy to religious minorities, similar to the Ottoman millet
87. Deringil, Conversion and Apostasy, 79–82.
88. The collection of Natanail Nazifov’s newspaper is preserved in the Oriental Department of
the Bulgarian National Library in Sofia (Natsionalna Biblioteka, Sv. sv. Kiril i Metodii– Orientalski Otdel).
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system, and religious community leaders could intervene in the cases of their
members. Thus, the müftü often made efforts to persuade the Muslim petitioners to preserve their Muslim faith but lacked the legal authority to do
so. As such, a commission of high-ranking officials, the Bulgarian priest,
and the müftü held meetings in which the müftü had a chance to speak privately with the petitioner; this practice carried over from Ottoman religious
practices to the new Bulgarian state.
Another wave of conversions took place from all existing local religions,
including Bulgarian Orthodoxy to Protestantism, which spread by organised
missionary activities of the American Methodist Episcopal Church as well as
Armenian Protestants. After the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–1878, the
Methodist missionaries began to return to Bulgaria and opened schools,
churches, and printing houses to publish religious texts and distribute Bibles.
In the 1880s, they achieved a degree of success, recruiting many Bulgarian
Orthodox Christians to their missionary work. Because religion was such an
efficient source for mobilisation, missionaries were often subject to strict
state control. The tensions between Orthodox and Protestant Christians
sometimes led to violence, and Protestants would petition the British government for protection. Protestant missionary activity had gradually increased in
the 1880s and 1890s.
At the same time, Armenian Protestants also conducted missionary work
and targeted the Turkish-speaking residents of Ruse, which included Muslims, Jews, and Armenians. John Avetaranian (born Muhammad Shukri
Efendi), a Muslim convert from Eastern Anatolia, played the leading role in
this mission. Working with other Protestant groups, Avetaranian spent much
time travelling in the region and preaching in Turkish and Armenian. He also
established a printing press in Shumla and published religious newspapers in
Turkish such as Shahid-ul Haqaiq that his followers republished throughout
the 1930s and 1940s.
This case study of Ruse shows that, for the first time in the history of the
region, Muslims began converting publicly to different sects of Christianity
under their own free will. Although the overall figures of converts are not
available in the sources, the records of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and
the Protestant missionaries in Ruse point to a significant number of converts
from Islam to Christianity. Muslim Conversion to Christianity no longer took
place discreetly and quietly but instead accompanied public ceremonies for
baptism. Although Muslim conversion to Bulgarian Orthodoxy showed the
intention to be “Bulgarian” and, in some cases, for safety and convenience,
Muslim conversion to Protestantism mostly took place for religious reasons.
Protestant converts openly preached to other Muslims and even published
journals and religious texts inviting them to Christianity.
Bulgaria accommodated an ethnically and religiously diverse population,
and each region had a different experience with the war of 1877–1878 and
the turmoil of the following transitional period. Ruse represents an exceptional case in which the transfer of power to Bulgarian Orthodox Christians
was relatively peaceful and gradual, violence against non-Orthodox
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Bulgarians was rather mild, and the city itself preserved much of its diverse
population. Religious conversion likely took place under different circumstances in other Bulgarian cities such as Sofia and Plovdiv. Sofia, which
became the capital of Bulgaria, lost much of its Muslim population through
various forms of persecution such as forced-migration and confiscation of
property. The city of Plovdiv, which had a sizeable Pomak population, suffered severely from large-scale violence during and its immediate aftermath
of the war of 1877–1878. Unfortunately, religious conversion in postOttoman Bulgaria remains understudied; prospective scholars should conduct
further research and explore conversion cases in other Bulgarian cities. The
Bulgarian state archives, the St Cyril and Methodius National Library in
Sofia, and the provincial archives and libraries offer a wide range of sources
such as the records of Bulgarian Orthodox Church, foreign consular reports,
newspapers, traveller accounts, diaries and the records of some public
figures. Similar Western sources, in particular the records of Protestant
missionaries, would be of great importance to reveal the complex and
multi-dimensional nature of religious conversion entangled with nation
building processes.