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PC(USA) Mission History in Lebanon (and Syria)

(Note: Until post-WWI, Lebanon and Syria were considered to be part of the same region known as “Greater Syria.” Because Syria and Lebanon’s histories are so closely tied and because of the PC(USA)’s partnership with a denomination comprised of both Syrian and Lebanese churches, the histories of PC(USA) Mission activity in both Syria and Lebanon have been combined into one history here.)

Overview
Educational Ministries
Mercy Ministries
Noteworthy Individuals

Overview

A view of mountains in Lebanon.

A glimpse of Lebanon’s staggering beauty. Qadisha Valley, Lebanon.

By the grace of God and through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a rich and remarkable history in Syria and Lebanon. Not only has God used Presbyterian Christians to impact thousands of lives in Syria and Lebanon themselves, God has used these Christians to impact countless lives throughout the entire Middle East and far beyond. From translating the Scriptures into modern-day Arabic to founding world-class universities, from planting new churches to providing medical care to the elderly and from training local believers in theological education to writing internationally acclaimed books, the Presbyterian Christians of Syria and Lebanon have watched God bless their efforts throughout the last 200 years.

The first Presbyterian mission personnel arrived in “greater Syria” in 1823. In spite of numerous social, religious and political obstacles, many local people embraced the message the Presbyterian mission personnel brought. These believers eventually became known simply as “Evangelicals” for their devotion to the Scriptures and for their earnest desire to follow Christ in their daily lives. The first “Evangelical” church was formed in 1848 in southern Lebanon, and churches began to develop all around Lebanon and Syria as time went on.

A landscape view of the mountains of Mt. Hermon.

Mt. Hermon, Syria, as viewed from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.

The Presbyterians (“Evangelicals”) in Syria and Lebanon eventually took on the name “National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon” (NESSL).  In 1959, the NESSL assumed responsibility for the educational, medical and evangelistic work related to the PC(USA).  Today there are 44 organized congregations that comprise the NESSL.

The heart of these Syrian and Lebanese brothers and sisters in Christ – people who have stayed faithful in the midst of some very difficult circumstances – shines through in these words, written in 1985 during the height of the Lebanese Civil War: “In the midst of a disturbed and changing world, the people and congregations of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon seek to be faithful witnesses to God’s truth and love and to be a means of service and reconciliation to the society around them.” [1]

Educational Ministry

A man speaking in front of a class of students.

The Rev. Wesley Tillett, Mission Co-Worker of the PC(USA), teaching 5th Graders in Zahle, Lebanon.

Educational ministry has always been a central piece of the Evangelical witness in the Middle East. By 1827, just four years after mission personnel began their work in this region, there were already 600 students in 13 schools in Syria and Lebanon. Even more impressive is that fact that 120 of these students were girls. Most girls in this region were not educated in those days. In 1835, Presbyterian mission personnel further demonstrated their belief in the value of girls’ education by founding The Beirut Evangelical School for Girls — the first girls’ school in the entire Ottoman Empire.

Over the years the NESSL’s schools have undergone dramatic shifts in order to keep pace with political and cultural changes. But the schools have maintained their educational vitality and their Christian witness. Today there are around 14,000 students studying in 20 schools run by the NESSL. Though these are Christian schools in which Christian doctrine and principles are taught, the students come from a wide variety of religious backgrounds (Sunni, Shiite, Druze, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and others). [2]

Schoolchildren in front of a camera, smiling.

Children at one of the NESSL’s schools. Zahle, Lebanon.

There are other noteworthy accomplishments in the Presbyterians’ educational ministry in this region:

  • Presbyterians are credited with bringing the first Arabic-script printing press to “Syria” in 1834. This press became a major factor in increasing literacy and literature in the Arabic language.
  • As already mentioned, in 1835 Presbyterians founded the Beirut Evangelical School for Girls (a.k.a. the “American School for Girls”), the first girls’ school in the entire Ottoman Empire. In 1926, a “Junior College” was opened in order to provide a college education to graduates from the American School for Girls, as many of the girls’ parents would not allow the girls to attend a co-educational college. This “Junior College” later became known as Beirut College for Women (BCW). In the 1970’s, BCW began admitting men as well as women, and in the 1990’s the school’s name was changed to Lebanese American University (LAU). Today LAU is a top-notch co-educational institution with strong ties to the PC(USA). In fact, four PC(USA) representatives still serve on LAU’s board.
  • From 1847 to 1865 Eli Smith, Butrus al Bustany, Cornelius Van Dyck and others translated the entire Bible into contemporary Arabic. Although there were other Arabic translations of the Bible available, these used an archaic language that was difficult to understand. The “Van Dyck translation” contemporized the language. Today the “Van Dyck translation” continues to be used by most Arabic-speaking Christians throughout the Middle East.
  • In 1866, Presbyterians founded the school that eventually bore the name American University of Beirut (AUB). Today AUB is considered the premiere university of Syria and Lebanon.
  • In 1932, the Near East School of Theology was founded, providing top-notch theological education to both lay and vocational ministers. [3]

Mercy Ministry

The ministry of healing has also been a part of the Presbyterian witness in the Middle East from the very beginning. Today the NESSL continues to run Hamlin Hospital in the mountains of Lebanon. Originally a sanatorium for sufferers of tuberculosis, Hamlin Hospital was also a nursing school for a number of years. Today it primarily serves to provide geriatric care to aging patients. With its emphasis on hospitality and excellence, Hamlin Hospital continues to be a beacon of Christ’s mercy shining in Lebanon’s beautiful mountains.

The NESSL has also worked with other Christian groups to serve refugees, the handicapped and drug addicts. The NESSL has continually sought to partner with fellow Christians of various traditions in the effort to share the love and truth of Jesus Christ. [4]

Noteworthy Individuals

Black and white photo of Dr. Cornelius Van Alen Van Dyck

Dr. Cornelius Van Alen Van Dyck, with help from many others, translated the Bible into modern-day Arabic, finishing the project in 1865. The translation, commonly referred to as “the Van Dyck translation,” still is used today by most Arabic-speaking Christians.

Presbyterians in Lebanon and Syria have been blessed with a number of people of distinguished ability over the years:

Mikhail Meshaka (1800-1888), a physician from Damascus who was also an influential writer, served as U.S. and British Consul in Syria from 1859 to 1870.

Eli Smith (1801-1857), originally from Connecticut, is credited with bringing the first printing press with Arabic script to “Syria” and with beginning the Arabic translation of the Bible which Van Dyck eventually finished.

Cornelius Van Dyck (1818-1895) was a medical doctor from New York. Van Dyck’s crowning achievement was translating the Bible into modern-day Arabic (completed in 1865).

Butrus al Bustany (1819-1883), a brilliant Lebanese scholar of Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic, he was critically instrumental in translating the Scriptures into Arabic.

Dr. Henry and Mrs. Helen Boyes, a dynamic American duo working in Tripoli (northern Lebanon), served side-by-side in the hospital from 1919 to 1959, founding a nursing school in 1935. They are warmly remembered in Lebanon for their humanitarian efforts.

Ben Weir, an ordained minister from America known for his gentle, conciliatory nature, was abducted in Lebanon in 1984 and released in 1985. His story garnered international attention and can be read in detail in the book, Hostage Bound, Hostage Free, written by Weir and his wife, Carol.

Kenneth Bailey, though also serving in Cyprus, Jerusalem and Egypt, for 20 years (1955-1975) he served as Professor of New Testament and the head of the Biblical Department at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut. Bailey’s writings (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, The Cross and The Prodigal, Poet and Peasant Through Peasant Eyes and a number of other books and publications) have informed and inspired readers all over the world. 


[1] “A Brief Survey of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon,” 1985.

[2] Ibid.

[3] George F. Sabra, “Truth and Service: A History of the Near East School of Theology,” Librarie Antoine: 2009, p 98.

[4] “A Brief Survey of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon,” 1985.

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