May 13, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Imperiled Church: The Muslim threat to Christian Europe

John F. Fink(Fifth in a series of columns)

During the 17th century, the Catholic Church was imperiled not only by those who were determined to eliminate it, as in England, or by those who wanted to control it, as in France, but also by the Turkish Muslims. This time it was in Eastern and Central Europe.

But first, a brief history of the Ottoman Empire up until that time.

On May 29, 1453, the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror put an end to the Byzantine Empire with the fall of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). During the next two centuries, the Turks continued to add to the Ottoman Empire, reaching the height of its power, but not its greatest territorial extent, during the reign of Suleiman I (1520-66). He conquered most of Hungary. The Battle of Lepanto in 1571 was one of Christendom’s few victories against the Ottoman Turks.

During the 16th century, Hungary was partitioned. Austria held the west, the Ottoman Turks the south and center, and Transylvania, a region of Romania bordering Hungary, was an independent state for the Magyars. Also during this century, the Habsburgs achieved the height of their power in Europe when Emperor Charles V (1519-56) ruled an empire more vast than that of any European since Charlemagne, and his brother Ferdinand ruled Austria in that part of Hungary controlled by Austria.

In the Ottoman Empire, grand viziers, ministers of state, dominated the government from 1656-91. The empire reached its greatest territorial extent with the capture of Crete in 1669 and the annexation of Podolia in present-day Ukraine in 1676. Then, once again, the Turks began to spread into Central Europe, and by 1683 they were besieging Vienna, Austria.

Pope Innocent XI recognized the Muslim threat to Christian Europe. In March of 1683, he managed to bring about an alliance between Emperor Leopold I and John III Sobieski of Poland. Sobieski then led Christian troops to Vienna, where they ended the siege of the city on September 12, 1683.

The pope then formed the Holy League that included Poland, Venice and Russia. The Holy League triumphantly liberated Hungary in 1686 and recovered Belgrade in 1688. The Muslims retreated to Turkey, and the Habsburgs added all of Hungary to their territory.

There is an interesting sidelight to the rescue of Vienna that concerns the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. After the Crusaders conquered the Holy Land, they set about repairing and rebuilding numerous churches. One of the repairs to the Church of the Nativity consisted of putting on a new roof, for which they used lead to keep the roof from leaking.

While the Turks were besieging Vienna, they began to run out of ammunition. Then someone remembered that the roof of the Church of the Nativity had been built with lead. The lead was stripped from the roof, melted down and made into cannon balls, and they were hurried to the Turkish camp at Vienna. Fortunately for the Christians, perhaps, the cannon balls didn’t arrive before Sobieski’s troops defeated the Turks.

The damage that had been done to the Church of the Nativity wasn’t repaired until after the Israelis occupied Bethlehem. †

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