ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Presbyterian Church in the Middle East

While small, the Presbyterian movement has for more than a century affected the lives of generations in the Middle East.

In the 19th century, American and Scottish Presbyterians began work in what is today Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. In that same period, Anglicans and Lutherans established themselves in the Holy Land while the Reformed (Dutch) Church of America braved the harsh deserts of the Arabian Gulf. Baptists and Pentecostals, however, did not arrive in the area until the second half of the 20th century.

Syria and Lebanon. In 1819, a small group of American Presbyterians set foot in Beirut, Lebanon. By 1823 they had learned Arabic and established their presence in the country. After centuries of oppressive Ottoman Turkish rule, a pressing need for the people on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean was education. Village schools provided a demanding but rewarding start for meeting this need. In just a few years, there were more than 700 students in numerous towns and villages around Beirut. A school for girls opened, the first of its kind in the entire Ottoman Empire, which stretched from North Africa to Iraq. Happily, that Evangelical School for Girls has survived both the test of time and the ravages of war.

The Presbyterian Mission village school outreach program gradually spread as far as Aleppo in northern Syria to villages on the banks of the Euphrates. Primary schools provided the impetus for building secondary schools in major urban centers such as Aleppo, Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli.

By 1867 the Presbyterian Mission sensed that the entire region needed a university; a recently founded theological training school in Aley, Lebanon, already had a popular arts course. That same year, the arts course was separated from the seminary, relocated to Beirut and renamed the Syrian Protestant College.

The language of instruction was Arabic and a Reformed Church medical doctor named Cornelius Van Dyck founded the Middle East first medical school as part of the university. To do so he was obliged to Arabize all medical vocabulary and then compose medical textbooks in Arabic, a feat not duplicated even by Arabs for more than a century. The Syrian Protestant College founded by Van Dyck and his colleagues eventually evolved into the American University of Beirut, a school that has educated many of the top leaders of numerous Middle Eastern countries throughout the 20th century.

Van Dyck was also a man of letters and was the final editor of a new Arabic Bible, completed in 1865. One of his local Protestant collaborators in that great project was a famous Lebanese scholar, Butrus al-Bustani, who translated the entire New Testament and most of the Old Testament from the original Greek and Hebrew. Millions of copies of this Bible were sold across the Arab world; it remains the official Arabic language Bible for Egypt Coptic Orthodox Church. Bustani also edited the Arabic language first multivolumed encyclopedia and wrote many of its articles.

To facilitate the need for Bibles, commentaries and school textbooks, the Presbyterian Mission established one of the first Arabic language presses in the Middle East and pioneered the development of a clear and artistically satisfying Arabic movable type. For more than 100 years that press served a wide constituency of Christians and non-Christians across the Arabic-speaking world. Many intellectuals have paid tribute to the contribution the “Presbyterian Evangelical” movement has made to the Arab renaissance of the last 150 years. (In the Middle East, evangelical is synonymous with Presbyterian.)

In the 19th century, all school levels under the Presbyterian Mission included a study of the Bible and the Christian faith. In time, a Protestant community was formed and organized into local congregations, or “presbyteries,” and synods. This community has never exceeded 30,000 people but has exerted an influence through medicine and education that has reached far beyond itself. This influence continues today as Presbyterian churches and schools stretch from Aleppo in Syria to Tyre in the south of Lebanon.

Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990), which had an unmistakable religious component, nearly destroyed the country fine school system. Last year a Presbyterian school was rebuilt, refurbished and reopened in the mountain village of Ain Zahalta. The town is almost entirely populated by Druze, a religion with Islamic antecedents that originated in Egypt in 996. Walid Jumblatt, the head of Lebanon Druze community, asked the Presbyterians to rebuild and reopen the school; Jumblatt himself delivered the dedication speech at its opening in 1998. In spite of the residual bitterness of war, he was happy to invite the Lebanese Presbyterian community to educate the children of his constituency, knowing that the study of the Bible remains a part of the school curriculum.

The Arabic-speaking Presbyterian community is small and vital, yet it does not represent the entire Presbyterian population in the Middle East.

The well-known Turkish and Kurdish massacres of Armenian Christians began in 1894 and came to a full, horrible climax in the genocide of 1915-1918. As these atrocities were perpetuated, a significant part of the surviving Armenian community fled southward to Syria and present-day Lebanon. Shortly before that upheaval, members of a reform movement within the Armenian Apostolic Church found common ground with Western Protestant missionaries and formed the Armenian Evangelical Church. This church, which has its own churches, schools, youth centers and publications, nevertheless maintains strong relations with the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Churches need clergy. To fill that need, the seminary in Aley trained clergy for the area Arabic-speaking Presbyterian churches. In 1930 this seminary was augmented by the Anglican and Protestant survivors of the Armenian genocide. Together they formed the Near East School of Theology (NEST), then established in Beirut. That school continues to flourish with a strong, well-trained Middle East faculty led by Dr. Mary Mikhael, the first woman to head a Middle Eastern seminary in Christian history. NEST was privileged in February 1999 to host a visit by the head of the Anglican communion, the Most Rev. George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Middle East in the 19th century was a time of bitter polemics among various Christian traditions. The result was loss and tragedy for all concerned. Even physical violence and martyrdom were not avoided. But thanks to Pope John XXIII, and the vision of the fathers of Vatican II, those dark days are gone. Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians today sit together as full and equal members of the Middle East Council of Churches. The council itself began as the Protestant Council of Churches. Two decades ago it grew into the present full council, representing the region various Protestant, Latin (Roman) and Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Compassion for people physical suffering naturally led the early Presbyterian leaders to express concern for the medical needs of the people in that region. This concern resulted in hospitals and clinics in various areas across Syria and Lebanon. After more than a century of service, most of these facilities have been taken over by local authorities.

In spite of emigration, the Presbyterian community of Syria and Lebanon remains active in provincial and national life. It also contributes to the ever-growing ecumenical openness that continues to flourish in today Christian community.

Egypt. In 1854, one Scottish and two American Presbyterian clergymen and their families began work in the Nile Delta. Their goal was to help strengthen the area Coptic Christian community. The distribution of the Bible in Arabic, the introduction of a sermon into the liturgy, the encouragement of an educated priesthood and the move toward an informed laity were foremost in their concerns.

Renewed in faith through exposure to a Gospel in the mother tongue, this Coptic community reluctantly found itself obligated to reorganize its life apart from past traditions. Thus the Presbyterian Evangelical Church of Egypt was born.

Gradually, the same need for education that had developed in Syria and Lebanon surfaced in Egypt. The southern capital of Assiut saw the founding of Assiut College by John Hogg of Scotland. Later, a major college for women was established in Cairo. As in Beirut, a university also opened under the Presbyterians; it, too, was located in Cairo. A professor of Bible study and its former president, Dr. John Badeau, was appointed the Ambassador to Egypt in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy.

Theological study began on the deck of Dr. Hogg houseboat; in the first 25 years, Dr. Hogg himself was the central figure of the Presbyterian movement in that region. From these humble beginnings evolved the Cairo Evangelical Seminary, which en-rolls 130 students from over 11 countries. With a brand new, six-story facility near the center of Cairo, it is poised for the training of future community leaders and for cooperation in an ever-warming relationship with the nearby seminary of the Coptic Catholic Church.

Again, the Egyptian Evangelical community is not large, comprising perhaps 100,000 communicants. Yet this small church maintains three major hospitals and a network of primary and secondary schools that dot the Egyptian countryside. The vast majority of the students in the schools and patients in the hospitals are from the Muslim community (which comprises the majority of Egypt population) and from other Christian traditions.

One of the outstanding figures of the Presbyterian Church is the late Reverend Dr. Samuel Habib, founder and director of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS). This amazing organization grew from a small literacy team in the 1950 to an organization of more than 400 full-time employees with an annual budget of more than seven million dollars. Entering the villages of Egypt only by invitation, CEOSS touches and transforms village life on all levels, from farming and childcare to literacy, health, nutrition and, for Christians, formation in the Christian faith.

The threat of violence from certain Muslim extremist groups is an ever-present reality for all Christians in Egypt. Rev. Habib vision of “Come let us reason together” has lessened existing tensions, from the village to the university. In addition, local churches have developed programs to meet the social needs of the community at large. Now, extremists will think twice about burning down a local church when a clinic for the poor is held on its roof, especially when those extremists families are treated regularly in that same clinic. These clinics and sewing centers are not cases of “enlightened self-interest,” intended to preserve the life of the minority Christian community. Rather, they grow out of the love of Christ and are directed by the mind of Christ who commissioned his disciples with the challenge, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Breaking down the barriers between Christians and Muslims was high on Rev. Habib agenda; in this area, along with his other efforts, he achieved national recognition. At his funeral in 1997, as a gesture of respect, gratitude and admiration, the municipality of Cairo closed all streets leading to the capital central square for 45 minutes. A well-trained, experienced staff now continues the work he so nobly began.

Another area where the Egyptian Presbyterian Church has led the Christian community is in the summer camp youth movement. Forty-five years ago, a 20-acre property was acquired west of Alexandria along the Mediterranean coast. The Agamy Youth Center has flourished beyond its founders wildest dreams, providing not only inspiration and direction for the youth of the Evangelical movement but creating models for youth ministry utilized by other Christian traditions in Egypt.

America has not been ravaged by war on its own turf since 1865. For Middle Eastern Christians, the 20th century began with the Armenian genocide and is concluding with the slaughter of more than one million mostly Christian Southern Sudanese. Wars between the Turks and the British, the Germans and the Allies, and the Israelis and the Arabs have raged back and forth across the Eastern end of the Mediterranean for 100 years. Yet the Church, full of faith, hope and love, remains. The Presbyterian tradition has added a noteworthy page to the largest book of life in the lands where Christianity began.

Author, lecturer and minister Kenneth Bailey spent 40 years in the Middle East.

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