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Evangelicals in Greater Syria, Jordan and Iraq

Evangelicals in Greater Syria, Jordan and Iraq[1]

By Azar Ajaj

1. History

The Holy Land has long attracted the attention of evangelical Christians. Its ties to the persons and events recorded in the Bible drew the attention of many, the geopolitical decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century and the location of the land at the nexus of Africa, Asia, and Europe drew the attention of others. The rise of millenarianism and dispensationalism—as popularized by figures like Darby and Scofield—further heightened the status of the Land.

One important millenarian movement interpreted Romans 9-11 as meaning that a substantial number of Jews would convert to Christianity prior to the bodily return of Jesus Christ. The London Jews Society (today known as the Church’s Ministry to the Jews or CMJ) was established in 1809 and made a profound impact on the shape of evangelical and Protestant Christianity in what was then Greater Syria, a governorate of the Ottoman Empire with its head in Damascus. The LJS coordinated the missionary work of various evangelical, Protestant missionaries, mainly Anglicans and Lutherans. The Dane Hans Nicolayson and his family were the first Protestants/evangelicals to settle in the city of Jerusalem, then an unsanitary and sometimes dangerous walled city where the gates were still locked at night. Other missionaries joined him and in 1841 the first Protestant bishop of Jerusalem was ordained in London—Michael Solomon Alexander. Alexander, whose episcopate only lasted four years, had been a rabbi but had come to believe that Jesus was the messiah promised in the Tanakh. Alexander and other believing Jews of the time called themselves Hebrew Christians, as the term ‘messianic Jew’ did not exist, and these believers had no qualms about identifying themselves clearly as members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church mentioned in creeds. Christ Church in the Jaffa Gate of the Old City today is the fruit of this labor.

The mission of the CMJ in relation to Jerusalem was to establish a Hebrew congregation on Mount Zion, and in this they were, barely, successful. The prayer book was translated into Hebrew, and Hebrews were baptized, confirmed, married, buried, and in a few cases ordained to the diaconate and presbytery.[2] The LJS also witnessed to Jews in other centers like Istanbul, Baghdad, Haifa, Tiberias, and Tunis.

One of the most fantastic figures of the time was Joseph Wolfe, whose missionary adventures are recounted in a number of volumes. Wolfe, a Jew, converted to Catholic Christianity and was baptized by the local bishop, then became a Protestant cleric. One of Wolfe’s main goals was to find the lost tribes of Israel and identify the ‘kings of the east’ who would cross the Euphrates at the time of the great eschatological battle between good and evil mentioned in Revelation 16:2.

The Swiss French evangelical missionary Samuel Gobat succeeded Alexander as the Protestant bishop in Jerusalem and in 1855 decided to invite the Church Mission Society (CMS) to open Palestine as a mission field. Unlike the LJS, the CMS missionaries were open to welcoming Christians from the ancient, local churches (Orthodox, Maronite, Coptic, and Greek Catholic) into the Protestant fold. Gobat and the CMS tended to see the spirituality of the ancient churches as hopelessly compromised and found little to value in it. Under Gobat’s bishopric an Arabophone group of congregations came into being in cities like Nazareth,[3] Nablus, Haifa, Jerusalem, and eventually on the East Bank of the Jordan in Salt.[4]

While the missions of the Anglicans and Lutherans in the Transjordan, and the Presbyterian and Congregationalists in Syria-Lebanon were the largest and most important missions, other groups would arrive later and, usually, in smaller numbers.  In the 20th Century new arrivals to Lebanon and Syria were seen as well: Brethren, Assemblies of God, Baptist, and so on.

2. Israel/Palestine

Other evangelical churches also started their mission to this area, the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) established their first church in the ME in Jerusalem in 1890.[5] Shukri Musa, a Palestinian from Safed, who received believer’s baptism by George Truett at the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, was the first known Baptist to enter Israel. He arrived in 1911, began in Zefat (also spelled Safed sometimes), and later in the same year he founded the first Baptist church in the Holy Land in Nazareth.[6] In the 1920’s, as a result of the political stability under the British Mandate, several missions started to work in the area. The Church of the Nazarene started their ministry in Jerusalem in 1920 among Armenian Refugees.[7]  The Assemblies of God mission had also shown interest in the Holy Land and started their official work in the country in 1926.The Open Brethren Church started also at that time, although several individuals had ministered in the country since the end of the 18th century, yet nothing has been established until 1926 where Bet Hassda Assembly was established in Haifa, later assemblies were founded in Jaffa and Jerusalem, and then in Nazareth (restless ME). The Closed Brethren ministry started in the Land in the 1940’s through a Druze convert from Syria, establishing the first church in a small Galilean village of Kufer Yasif.

Most of the evangelical churches in Israel/Palestine are rooted in these missions in one way or another. The number of the Arabic-speaking evangelical congregations in Israel is 35, with an estimated membership of 5000. Most of these churches are located in the North of the country. In 2005 they came together to form the Convention of the Evangelical Churches in Israel (CECI), with the exception of the Closed Brethren.  In addition to these churches, there are also more than 100 Messianic congregations and home groups spread in all the country, with roughly 15,000 members. A primary reason for this stance amongst Jewish churches is their desire to emphasise the Jewishness of their identity to Jewish Israelis, which requires them to distance themselves from what is seen as Christian, since the word “Christian” has amongst Jews, particularly in light of the church’s history of anti-Semitism, and the desire to emphasize their continuity with the Jewish people. However, that in the fundamental issues of faith, there are no differences between Messianic Jews and Christians.[8] Evangelical churches are formed almost entirely of converts from other forms of Christianity, though occasionally one will find a convert from Druze, Judaism or Islam. There are a handful of congregations scattered throughout the country that are formed mostly of Christians from a Muslim background. In Israel Muslims have the freedom to convert legally to Christianity; this is not the case in the West Bank and Gaza, where the Islamic shari’a is a key source for legislation.

In the Palestinian Authority areas, Jerusalem and Gaza there are about 11 evangelical churches with membership around 1000. Most of these churches formed in 1998 what came to be Council of Local Evangelical Churches in the Holy Land. It is important to note that in both countries, evangelical churches are not state-recognized denominations. The conventions are, however, seeking recognition from the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

3. Syria and Lebanon

In what is known now as Lebanon and Syria, the congregationalist and Presbyterian missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missionaries (ABCFM, or simply American Board) were active, since their arrival to the area in 1820’s. Their first (and famous) convert was a Maronite named Shidyaq As’ad.[9] Eventually, in 1850, the Sublime Porte would recognize the legal existence and autonomy of a distinct, Protestant millet (Turkish) or dhimmi (Arabic). Converts trickled in from other Churches mostly—Armenian, Orthodox, Assyrian—but converts from Islam were few and far between. The descendants of the converts that would survive the Armenian genocide and World War I and the expulsion of Greeks from Turkey would go on to form the nucleus of some of the evangelical churches that exist today.

In the 1940’s, and after the independence of both countries, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon was formed. By 1959 the Synod took over all the responsibilities over the 38 churches, as well as the medical and educational services from the American Presbyterian mission. [10]

The CMA was the next evangelical mission, arriving to Syria in 1921, and eventually planting churches in Damascus and Homs. The Church of the Nazarene was the one to follow at that time, and other groups, such as the Assemblies of God and the Baptists, came in to Syria later. In 1963 all the expatriate clergymen were asked to leave the country, leaving the ministry in the hand of the local pastors and leaders.[11] It is worth saying that until the problems started in 2011, Syrian Christians enjoyed a great amount of freedom of religion.

When we move to Lebanon, we find that the Baptists were the next to come, and the first known Baptist church in Lebanon was constituted at Beirut in 1895 by Said Jureidini, a Lebanese who returned from the USA where he met the Lord in a Baptist Church.[12] Other denominations came later to Lebanon and today there are (at least) twelve denominations:  Presbyterians, National Evangelical church, Adventist, Baptist, church of God, Nazarene, CMA, AOG, brethren, Quakers, Free Evangelicals, Armenian Evangelicals. These churches have about 50,000 members who are officially registered in the government.

The Evangelical community in Lebanon is often active in reaching out to their own people through education. Almost 30 schools are run by the different denominations and Evangelical private owners, and they are spread throughout the country. Several seminaries are owned by different denominations, they serve the evangelical community in Lebanon, Syria and other Arab countries.  As evangelicals in other countries in the region, Lebanese denominations also offer medical and cultural services too.

4. Jordan

As already mentioned, Protestant missions were active in the Levant from the 1820’s, yet we do not find any evidence of interest in the work in Jordan until the second half of the 19th century, when the CMS became active on the East Bank of the Jordan river.

Frederick Augustus Klein, a native of Strasbourg, was active in the Transjordan and later Egypt. He is best remembered today for his discovery of the Moabite Stone in 1868, which gave a qualified affirmation to Biblical material from the book of Kings. The East Bank was also an arena for indigenous leaders to minister and flourish. Khalil al Jamal, a non-ordained catechist and native of Nazareth, was active in Al Salt. While he did not found the work there, it was after his arrival in 1879 that the Protestant community there ‘began to enjoy a measure of stability.[13] The church in Salt would later send members to conduct home meetings in Amman, 20 miles away, and the Church of the Redeemer was officially organized there in 1927.[14] Other early Anglican Arab evangelical leaders in the Transjordan (and sometimes Egypt) were Michael Qa’war, Serpahim Boutaji and Naser Oude. This group of Arab leaders were trained and encouraged by John Zeller, who ministered for about 40 years in Palestine and was instrumental in making Nazareth a center for Arab evangelicalism in the region, and actively supported training indigenous leadership,[15] some of whom would go on to minister east of the Jordan.

Interestingly, the Free Church evangelical work in Jordan began as a result of an internal quarrel in one of the Christian clans (Al Fawakhri) in the town of Salt in 1926. Since the Orthodox priest was a member of one of the two groups, the other decided to leave the denomination. In order to do so they approached Mrs. Radford from the Assemblies of God mission in Jerusalem, asking her to open a mission in Salt. Having no one from her mission at that time to send, she encouraged a young man by the name of Roy Whitman, who was staying at the mission building and studying Arabic in Jerusalem, to take up the task. Whitman accepted the offer, and went there without knowing the real motive for the invitation. However, God used him there and we can consider his move to Salt as a major milestone of the evangelical work in Jordan,[16] and his ministry is considered as the beginning of the Assemblies of God ministry in Jordan. However, since it was connected with Whitman himself, who did not belong to the Assemblies of God, it stopped when he left to work independently.  The Assemblies of God was renewed in the 1960’s when missionaries came to Jordan.[17]

Whitman carried on with his ministry establishing the “Free Evangelical Church” in 1941, an independent local ministry influenced by open Brethren theology.  Although this denomination was small and local, its contribution to the rest of the evangelicals in Jordan is noticeable.  Many pastors and leaders from other denominations were in one way or another touched by Whitman’s ministry.

The Church of the Nazarene was the next to come to Jordan, beginning in Amman in 1948, then expanding their work to Zarqa a year later where they opened a school there and establishing their first church in 1954. Baptist work in Jordan started in the same period, when the Southern Baptist missionaries came to Ajloon in 1951 and took over Ajloon Baptist Hospital, originally founded by the CMS, and a school. Both of those institutions are still functioning today. Two years later, from the ministries of the hospital and the school, the first Baptist Church in Jordan was established.[18] The church found its way to Amman through the Baptist Bookshop, a place that became the seed for the church there.[19] Other denominations that were active n the country are the Seventh Day Adventists and the Christian Missionary Alliance.

In 1998 the five evangelical denominations in Jordan formed the “The High Evangelical Convention of Jordan”, which helps in coordinating ministries and represents the churches in receiving official recognition from the government.  Although there are no official statistics for evangelical church membership, the estimated number is around 8000 (between official members and attendance), with around 60 congregations. The churches serve the local community through social ministries, such as educational services; mainly through schools, bookshops and theological education institutions. They also supply health services through hospitals and clinics, and of course, churches are active in different spiritual activities.

5. Iraq

Protestant mission to Iraq started in the 1820’s when Joseph Wolff from the London Jews Society visited there, meeting Jews, Syrian Catholic and Yazides. He was followed by a closed Brethren dentist by the name Anthony Groves in 1829, who stayed four years in Bagdad.[20] However, the organized ministry started in 1839 when the American Board sent their first missionaries to Mosul and Kurdistan. Out of this mission work, the National Evangelical Protestant Denomination, Presbyterian in its practice, was established, with churches in Mosul, Bagdad, Kirkuk and Basra.

The Evangelical Protestant Assyrian Denomination also has its roots in the American Board’s mission, yet it was officially established in 1921 in Bagdad. Also the Seventh Day Adventist mission found its way to Iraq, and started to minister there in 1923, in Major cities like Bagdad, Mosul and Kirkuk.[21]

The CMS started their ministry in Bagdad in 1883, and five years after that they decided to establish an independent ministry there by the name of “The Arabic Turkish Mission”, with a focus on educational and medical service. Due to the work of the CMS an Anglican church was built in Bagdad and dedicated in 1937. This building was used also by other small evangelical groups in Iraq, such as Baptists and Methodists. In the second half of the 20th century, other evangelical groups also started their ministries in Iraq such as the Armenian Evangelical Brethren, Assemblies of God and Brethren.[22]

6. Challenges Facing the Christians in the Middle East

The decline of the number of Christians forms the main challenge for Christians, evangelical or otherwise, in the Middle East. This fact is like a knife on their neck which digs in deeper with every Christian departure. This emigration simply leaves the Land of the Bible with no witness or in the best case a marginalized one.[23] Reasons for this decline can be related first to the political instability, tension, the rise of political Islamic parties, wars, and civil wars that sadly characterize this area. Examples are the Palestinian/Israeli conflict for the last 60 years, the civil war in Lebanon, the war in Iraq, the Syrian civil war, and the domination of Gaza by Hamas. Christians were not the only people who left to the West, yet since they tend to be non-violent, this made their emigration rate higher than other groups. Second, the growth of the Islamic fundamentalism in the last 30 years or so, where Christians as minorities in these countries felt somehow that they did not belong to this culture any more in the best case, or they were attacked physically in the worst. Most of these countries are defined in their constitutions as Islamic countries, and although the citizen might have freedom in several areas, however this freedom stops when it comes to religion. In most of these countries, Christians are allowed to convert to Islam, but it is illegal for Muslims to convert to Christianity. Third, the low Christian birth rate relative to that of Muslims can be considered one of the main reasons of the decline of Christians in the Middle East. Fourth, the economic situation of the various countries of the Middle East has also been difficult on many occasions. The underperformance of economies in the Middle East cannot be reduced to any single factor, like the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or the rise of extremism or globalization—though these factors are significant. In any case, the lack of jobs and the rising cost of living, in conjunction with the social, cultural and religious tensions, has also been a significant factor contributing to Christian emigration.

These factors affect all Christians, not the evangelicals only. However, it is important to notice that in a few cases evangelical growth might be noticed, yet this growth comes on the account of the historical churches, and not from other religions.  Yet t, is important to note that evangelical churches and para-churches, in the Middle East are the ones to share the Gospel with the different religion and ethnical groups around them. In each of these countries several local ministries could be found, where through them evangelicals try to meet the need of their own people and build bridges with them. However we also find known christen organizations such as IFES and CCC, which work among university students and are well established almost in each of these countries. The United Bible Society also another organization which started to minster in the region since the first half of the nineteenth century, translating and distributing Bibles in several languages.

Finally, it is very clear that the picture of this area is a dark one, also the future is not much promising, yet it is important that evangelicals understand their important role in keeping the Christian witness in the Land of the Bible.

Footnotes

[1] This is a chapter from the book ‘Evangelicals around the World: A Global Handbook for the 21st Century’ (Thomas Nelson, 2015). Details about the book can be found here: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/896860766

[2] (Crombie 2006)

[3] (Miller 2012)

[4] (White 2012)

[5] (UCCI:2009,48)

[6] (Baker 1961)

[7] (Smith 1937, 178)

[8] (Kai Kjaer-Hansen and Bodil F. Skjott 1999)

[9] (Makdisi 2009, 2)

[10] (The National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon 2012)

[11] (David Barret, George Kurian, Todd Johnson 2001, 721)

[12] (McRae 1969, 38-39)

[13] (Rogan 2002, 129)

[14] (Miller Sep 2007, 405)

[15] (Ben Artzi 1988, 89)

[16] (Dalleh 1987 , 145)

[17] (Habash 2011, 1)

[18] (Ayoub n.d.)

[19] (Habash 2011, 3)

[20] (Genymeh 1998 , 50-51)

[21] (Genymeh 1998 , 181-185)

[22] (Genymeh 1998 , 186-208)

[23] (Belt 2009)

Bibliography

Ayoub, Jamal. Baptists in Jordan. http://history.jordanbaptist.org/baptistsonstage (accessed 6 10, 2013).

Baker, Dwight L. Baptist Golden Jubilee, 50 Years in Palestine-Israel. Baptist Village, Israel: Baptist Convention in Israel, 1961.

Belt, Don. “The Forgotten Faithful.” National Geographic. June 20o9. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/06/arab-christians/belt-text/1 (accessed May 22, 2013).

Ben Artzi, Yossi. “John Zeller – Missionary to Nazareth and the Holy Land.” Katedra 50 (1988): 73-97.

Crombie, Kelvin. A Jewish bishop in Jerusalem: the life story of Michael Solomon Alexander. . Jerusalem: Nicolayson’s, 2006.

Dalleh, Geryis. The Revival. Masouriat Al-Meten, Lebanon: Baptist Publishing House, 1987 .

David Barret, George Kurian, Todd Johnson. Syria. Vol. 1, in World Christian Encyclopedia, 719-721. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Genymeh, Hareth. Protestant and Evangelcals in Iraq (Arabic). Bagdad: Al-Naasher Al-Maktabi, 1998 .

Habash, Jiries O. “Evangelical Churches in Jordan.” MEATE Journal, 2011: 1-15.

Kai Kjaer-Hansen and Bodil F. Skjott. Facts & Myths about the Messianic Congregations in Israel. Jerusalem: UCCI, 1999.

Makdisi, Ussama. Artillery of Heaven. Ithaca, NY: Cornell niversity Press, 2009.

McRae, Jane Carroll. Photographer In Lebanon, The Story of Said Jureidini. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1969.

Miller, Duane Alexander. “CHRIST CHURCH (ANGLICAN) IN NAZARETH: A BRIEF HISTORY WITH PHOTOGRAPHS.” St Francis Magazine 8, no. 5 (October 2012).

Miller, Duane Alexander. “Morning Prayer, Low Style, in the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem: Church of the Redeemer, Amman, Jordan.” ’in Anglican and Episcopal History 76, 3 (Sep 2007): 404-408.

Rogan, Eugene. Frontiers of the State in the Late Ottoman Empire: Transjordan, 1850-1921 . Cambridge University, 2002.

Smith, Roy E. A History of Missions of the Church of Nazarene. Kansas City, Misouri: Nazarene Publishing House, 1937.

The National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. 2012. http://www.synod-sl.org/?page_id=38 (accessed July 2, 2013).

White, Malcolm. “ANGLICAN PIONEERS OF THE OTTOMAN PERIOD: SKETCHES FROM THE CMS ARCHIVES OF SOME ARAB LIVES CONNECTED WITH THE EARLY DAYS OF THE DIOCESE OF JERUSALEM.” St Francis Magazine 8 (April 2012): 283-314.

 

 

 

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