Mehmet’s Letter to the Pope: Example of religious tolerance in the 17th cent.
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In 1678, Sultan Mehmet IV sent a letter to the Pope that still reveals in the present not only the complex socio-political and religious situation of the time, but also provides us with a significant example of tolerance between faiths. In his missive, the sultan expressed a change of heart that proved crucial to the survival of the Capuchin missionaries in his empire. Originally inclined to expel these Christian missionaries, Mehmet was persuaded to reassess their presence as a result of two influential factors.

The first was the intervention of the King of France, Louis XIV, whose peaceful mediation mitigated the Sultan’s initial intent to expel the missionaries. The second, and perhaps more significant, was direct observation of the conduct of the Capuchins themselves. The sultan was so impressed by their humility and obedience that these qualities became a bridge of respect and tolerance between two very different religious and cultural worlds. Tolerance is truly the bridge that unites divided worlds, demonstrating how understanding and respect can facilitate peaceful coexistence beyond the seemingly insurmountable barriers of religious differences.

Text

“Great priest of Rome and sacrificer of Jesus, who was killed by the Jews in the city of Jerusalem. This is to let you understand that for a long time I have plotted to have all the sacrificers that you have sent to various cities and countries under my jurisdiction killed and exterminated, but two considerations have so far restrained my just fury. The first was the recommendation made to me this year by the Most Christian King, Louis, King of the French, whose ambassadors to my high Porte, for the preservation of peace, have made many supplications to me about this matter.^[1]

The second reason was the great humility and obedience shown by these sacrificers and penitent Capuchins, whom I allow to live in my Empire.^[2] My lieutenants and governors have reported to me that their way of living and conversing with my subjects is very modest and without scandal, which greatly surprises and astonishes me that good living and virtue are found in infidels, who do not know the power of the God of Abraham and His incomparable interpreter, the Moses of the law and the translator of His will (Muhammad).^[3] These two considerations have not only prevented the execution of my will to drive these penitents out of my Empire, but have kindled a new desire in my soul to regard them highly.^[4] For this reason, I have granted permission to many of them, who still call themselves servants of a certain prophet named Francis, to remain in my great city of Constantinople and in it serve the Nazarene and their prophet according to their statutes”^[5]
(from P. Clemente da Terzorio, The Missions of the Minor Capuchins, vol. II, Rome 1914, pp. 81-82).

ASH’s NOTE:

  1. Louis XIV of France, known as the “Sun King,” played a crucial role in European diplomacy of the 17th century. His influence extended well beyond the borders of France, acting as a mediator in international conflicts and supporting religious and political causes across Europe and beyond.

  2. The Capuchins are a Franciscan order known for their commitment to extreme poverty and dedication to serving others, inspired by Saint Francis of Assisi. Their presence in the Ottoman Empire is part of a broader movement of Christian missions that aimed for peaceful coexistence and interreligious dialogue during a time of frequent conflicts.

  3. The reference to “infidels” reflects a common perception of the time regarding adherents of faiths different from Islam within the Ottoman Empire. However, Mehmet IV’s recognition of their virtues signifies a notable example of religious tolerance, challenging contemporary norms.

  4. This statement highlights Mehmet IV’s personal internal conflict between the desire to follow traditions and political pressures and his personal openness toward religious tolerance, stimulated by the moral qualities of the Capuchins.

  5. Saint Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order from which the Capuchins derive, is often simply referred to as “their prophet” by non-Christians. His philosophy of humble living and his commitment to peace and respect for all living beings resonate deeply with the values of many religions, including Islam.

The key to co-existence

The Capuchins, following the example of St. Francis of Assisi, adopted an approach based on dialogue and modesty in daily life. This approach proved surprisingly effective even in the initially hostile environment of the Ottoman Empire, whom they did not know Christian doctrine and therefore considered unbelievers. Their way of living and interacting with the Muslim subjects of Sultan Mehmet IV, characterized by respect, overcame the barriers of prejudice, prompting the sultan to recognize their virtues. At the heart of humility truly lies the key to coexistence.

The humility and respect manifested by Capuchins are universal values, deeply rooted in different religious traditions. A particularly apt example emphasizing brotherhood among different faiths can be found in the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Isaiah 56:7 states, “I will cause them to come to my holy mountain and make them happy in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” This passage expresses a powerful invocation to inclusiveness and brotherhood, highlighting how the holy place is open to all, regardless of their background or faith, promoting an ideal of peaceful coexistence and mutual respect.

In the New Testament, a verse highlighting the importance of humility and brotherhood among different faiths is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Here, Paul exhorts, “Welcome one another, just as Christ also welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). This passage emphasizes the importance of welcoming and respecting others, despite differences, just as Christ did without distinction. It is a powerful reminder of how humility can serve as a foundation for constructive dialogue and peaceful coexistence among people of different faiths, promoting unity and mutual respect in diversity.

From the Quran, we receive a similar teaching that exalts patience and tolerance, key elements for harmonious coexistence. In Surah 49:13 (Al-Hujurat), we read: “O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Allah is All-Knowing, Well-Acquainted.” This verse reminds us that the diversity among people is an opportunity for mutual learning and growth, not a cause for division.

These teachings, rooted in the holy scriptures, affirm that the key to coexistence lies in the heart of humility and respect for others, regardless of differences in faith and culture. By embracing these virtues, we can build a more peaceful and welcoming society, where every individual is valued and respected.

Conclusions

This 17th-century story offers a powerful and timely lesson: respect and humility can build bridges between disparate communities. In an era of growing intolerance and polarization, the tale of Sultan Mehmet and the Capuchins reminds us that tolerance and mutual respect are not signs of weakness, but rather manifestations of a great spirit, capable of overcoming the deepest divisions. Mehmet’s decision to allow the Capuchins to continue their mission is an eloquent example of how tolerance can emerge even in the most unlikely situations, underscoring that “smallness” of spirit is really a sign of regression, not progress. In conclusion, Mehmet’s letter to the Pope is not only a historical document, but a manifesto of how tolerance can and should be exercised, even in the most difficult circumstances. “True greatness is revealed in the ability to recognize virtue beyond the barriers of faith.” This historical episode encourages us to look beyond our immediate differences and seek ways to coexist peacefully and with mutual respect, raising the human spirit above divisive barriers.

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