In 1797, revolutionary France conquered the Republic of Venice, and, with it, the Ionian Islands, which were a Venetian possession but were inhabited by Greek Orthodox Christians. The next year, the Russian, British, and Ottoman empires formed an alliance with the aim of, among other things, driving the French out of the Greek islands.
At this time, Gregory V was serving his first of three stints as Ecumenical Patriarch — he would serve from 1797-98, 1806-08, and 1818-21. Today, Patriarch Gregory is remembered almost exclusively as an “ethnomartyr” of the Greek Revolution: at the outset of the Greek War for Independence in 1821, immediately after the Paschal Liturgy, the Ottoman government dragged Gregory from the church and hanged him from the doors of the Phanar — doors that remain sealed to this day. A century later, in 1921, the Church of Greece canonized Patriarch Gregory as a saint.
While Patriarch Gregory’s execution has become one of the most evocative images of the Greek Revolution, his relationship to that revolution is a bit ambiguous, as he publicly opposed the revolution on numerous occasions, going so far as to formally excommunicate the revolutionaries against the Ottoman Empire. This may have been mostly for show, to assuage the Turkish authorities and prevent reprisals against the Greek Orthodox population in the Ottoman Empire. (Indeed, some authors have argued that, after the public act of excommunication, Patriarch Gregory secretly held a ceremony to lift the excommunications.) Regardless, Gregory’s relationship to the Greek Revolution is complicated.
Twenty-three years before all that, though, Patriarch Gregory spoke out against another revolution — the French — and spoke in glowing terms of the magnanimity of the Ottoman Empire, praising the Turkish leaders as bringers of true liberty to the Greek islanders that were suffering under their new French overlords.
The full English text of Gregory’s 1798 encyclical is published below. It was published the following year, in both Greek and English, in volume two of Copies of Original Letters from the Army of General Bonaparte in Egypt Intercepted by the Fleet Under the Command of Admiral Lord Nelson. I have made only a few very minor spelling updates to the original 1799 English translation. If you want to view the original text, go to page 228 of this book.
GREGORY, by the Grace of God, Archbishop of Constantinople (New Rome), and Ecumenical Patriarch.
Most dear and honoured Clergy and Nobility, and summarily, all ye Christians of Corfu, Cephalonia, Zante, Cerigo, Ithaca, Saint Maure, etc. our beloved children in the Lord! Grace be to you all, and peace and mercy from the Lord God Almighty; and from us prayer, blessing, and indulgence.
The serpent, the origin of all ill, who first beguiled mankind by various frauds and illusions, that he might draw them to perdition, perceiving in these latter days, that the French nation was more capable of wickedness than any other, has poured without measure into their souls the poison of apostacy; and having first instigated them to civil war, and barbarous regicide, has finally plunged them into every species of impiety and ungodliness. This mischief he has effected, notwithstanding the supreme wisdom of God, and his love to mankind, had never left them unprotected by his providence, but had regulated them by spiritual laws, in order to keep them in obedience to God (as he spoke by the mouth of the Royal Prophet, “Thy law is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path”); and had also bound them by political institutions, and kingly governments, that they might be preserved from a two-fold evil, — spiritually, by the divine laws of religious worship; and temporally, by the institutes of regal authorities.
For since the Divine Mercy foresaw that human nature was prone to remissness of duty, and forgetful of the light of divine knowledge, he appointed earthly monarchs to keep them (according to David) in the paths of virtue and good order. Kings, therefore, as representatives of God, are distributed through this lower world, to exercise men in the practice of obedience, and to preserve them from the paths of error, through the authority entrusted to them by Him “through whom kings reign.” They holy Apostle Paul declares, “that they do not bear the sword in vain, but for the praise of well-doers, and the punishments of such as do evil,” so that if kingly power were taken away, mankind falling precipitately into wickedness (“for the thought of man is prone to evil from his youth”), would rise up one against another, and the world would become a chaos of misery.
Knowing this, the wicked one, that he might bring mankind to that state of confusion which always follows a want of government (as right philosophy also teaches), stirred up the French to murder their king; then was made manifest his purpose, in seducing their minds from obedience to God. But these French, that they might draw all the world to their own impiety, concealed their revolt from God under the specious bait of Liberty, and the pretext of a perfect Equality. And when they afterwards proceeded to trample under foot all the duties of their religion, they set at naught all the treaties of alliance, as we clearly see by their ungrateful conduct to the Ottoman Porte, which, in the time of their necessity had never deserted them. They, on the contrary, shewed themselves openly hostile, and with subtle and designing publications, craftily attempted to trouble this empire, and force its subjects into anarchy and rebellion, of which the consequences are, civil war, murder, pillage, etc. — and finally, after all these artifices, they have made, in the face of the world, a piratical attempt upon Egypt; on account of which, this mighty empire has justly declared war against them by land and by sea, that by the Divine Assistance, it may punish these destroyers of mankind, these aliens of God, and these perturbators and pests of the general peace and good order of the world.
And for this purpose, our mighty Emperor has called in his powerful allies, the Monarchs of Russia and Great Britain, who having the same righteous end in view with himself, will co-operate with him in freeing mankind from the impending evils, and preserving the administrations of regal power, with all its constituted authorities.
Wherefore, the fleets of the three allied powers will speedily come into your parts, not against the Islands and their inhabitants, to subdue them, but rather to strengthen them in true liberty, to break the yoke of tyranny under which they have unwillingly fallen, and to redeem them from the impending impiety and atheism with which the contagious example of the French threatens speedily, very speedily, to infect them and their posterity.
Finally, since the Church of Christ watches for the salvation of mankind, and prays without ceasing for all, but particularly for Kings, and for those who are in authority under them (according to the Apostle), We, therefore, by the command of this government, declare to all the Orthodox inhabitants of the Islands of Corfu, Cephalonia, Zante, Ithaca, Cerigo, St. Maure, etc., that the sole will, intent, and purpose, of the allied powers is to extend the shield of their protection over the boundaries of truth and good order, and peace; and to punish those hostile and insidious French, who, with the poisonous streams of their pretended Liberty, endeavour, by speaking and writing, to deceive mankind, and to precipitate them into the abyss of wickedness and apostacy. And We exhort you all, as true members of the Church of Christ, and zealous for the pure doctrine of faith, and harmony, and obedience, on the receipt of this our Patriarchal Epistle, to drive forthwith from your Islands, those apostates from God, those pernicious tyrants of mankind; and co-operating with the Allied Powers, to assist personally, with promptitude and zeal in the discomfiture of those faithless French; that so ye may render yourselves worthy of the Divine Mercy, and obtain from the Sublime Porte a liberty surpassing even that of your ancient polity; for we promise that ye shall henceforth enjoy more freedom than at any former time.
We therefore declare unto you, by the command and unchangeable will of our Monarch, that ye shall have full power to select whatever form of government ye shall judge most conducive to the benefit of your country — either the aristocratical constitution of Ragusa, or any other that may please you better. For Ourselves, knowing, and being fully and unequivocally convinced, that the present declaration of war against the French is most just; and farther, that the scope and design of the Allied Powers is truly the deliverance of mankind; and that their intention, with respect to those Islands, which have fallen into the hands of the French by treachery, is to rescue them from the curse of Gallic craftiness, or, to speak more truly, impiety, and nothing else; We do, therefore, in our fatherly care, earnestly beseech and exhort you all, by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, to concur personally, and with one accord, in the laudable design of the aforesaid Powers; that so you may be firmly and immovably possessed of the desired liberty; and that ye may henceforth abide in that political harmony, and good government, which will be pleasing to God, salutary to your posterity, and finally lead to eternal life, and a happy futurity. This is the sum of Our wishes. The Grace of God, and the prayers and blessings of our spiritual jurisdiction, be upon you all!