Presbyterians’ commitment to education is bearing fruit in rising aspirations for freedom across the Middle East
By Victor E. Makari
Images of demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in early 2011 signaled a new awakening in the Middle East. People watching around the world saw men and women who were confident, articulate and eager to determine their own future.
The longings of people throughout the Middle East for freedom and self-determination are exactly the kinds of aspirations nurtured in the region at schools founded by American Protestant missionaries. Since the 19th century, educational institutions established by pioneering Presbyterians and their Congregational and Reformed cousins have spread Christian values and equipped national leaders in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and other Gulf states. The Arab Spring offers one of the most dramatic bits of evidence that the Presbyterian Church’s commitment to education is continuing to bear fruit around the world.
Above the main gate of the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, facing its expansive campus, a sign still reads, “That they may have life and have it more abundantly.” Daniel Bliss, a missionary of the Presbyterian and Congregational churches, served as president of the university when it was founded as Syrian Protestant College in 1866. At a ceremony marking the laying of the cornerstone of the first building on campus, Bliss pledged that the school would welcome students “without regard to color, nationality, race or religion.” After studying at the college, he declared, a student might “go out believing in one God, in many gods, or in no God. But it will be impossible for anyone to continue with us long without knowing what we believe to be the truth and our reasons for that belief.”
Cornerstone of mission
Churches have existed in the “lands of the Bible” since the beginnings of Christianity. These ancient churches once shone with luminaries in the faith, such as John of Damascus and Athanasius. But by the 19th century, the churches’ witness had been diminished by wars, political struggles, foreign occupations, persecution, poverty, widespread illiteracy and the leadership of largely uneducated clergy.
In just two decades, missionaries serving in Egypt launched 187 elementary and secondaryschools in villages where no educational institutions had existed before.
Presbyterian mission work in the region began in Syria in 1823 and in Iran in 1834. Early missionaries testified that their primary work was to evangelize and re-evangelize the nations of the Middle East by opening the hearts and minds of men and women to the light of the gospel. Thomas McCague and James Bennett, the first Presbyterian missionaries to arrive in Egypt, described the work they began in 1854 as having been “the means of saving many souls, gathering many companies of believers, establishing many schools, diffusing secular as well as religious knowledge far and wide, giving the nation a start on the road to enlightenment and freedom.”
In just two decades, missionaries serving in Egypt launched 187 elementary and secondary schools in villages where no educational institutions had existed before. Their commitment inspired Egyptian congregations and wealthy Christians to fund additional schools. Missionaries founded the first schools for girls in the Ottoman Empire, educating women through graduate and postgraduate levels. They built academies that provided training in the humanities, arts and sciences, raising the bar in higher education in the region. In addition to the American University of Beirut, other colleges founded and initially headed by American missionaries included the American University in Cairo (founded 1919), the Lebanese American University (founded 1924) and Haigazian University in Beirut (founded 1955).
Missionaries established two highly influential theological seminaries: the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, started by Presbyterians in 1863, and the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, founded by Presbyterians and Congregationalists in 1932. Over the years, both have produced church leaders for most Protestant and some Orthodox denominations in the Middle East as well as in Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia and the Americas.
Missionaries also assisted Middle Eastern partner churches and organizations in launching literacy campaigns in remote villages. Some of these efforts have evolved into Christian social service and sustainable development organizations.
Impact on society
Graduates of Presbyterian-founded schools in the Middle East have made significant contributions in education, religion, art, literature, science, medicine and diplomacy.
Syngman Rhee, a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly, visited partner churches in the Middle East in 2002. In Beirut he was welcomed by Lebanon’s speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, who boasted, “I am an Evangelical Muslim,” referring to his education at an Evangelical (Protestant) school.
In 2005, members of a PC(USA) delegation hosted by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt were introduced during a service of worship in Cairo. Hearing the name “Donna Shogren,” a woman in the front pew shouted, “She was my teacher at the American College for Girls” (a Presbyterian mission school, now operated by the Egyptian church and called Ramses College for Girls). The exuberant woman, it turned out, was Sallama Shaker, a Muslim, who had served as Egypt’s ambassador to Canada.
Two other women in Egypt’s diplomatic service, both graduates of mission schools, have been awarded honorary doctorates by PC(USA)-related Wilson College, in Chambersburg, Pa., for their distinguished achievements: Sohair Zaki, former consul general in New York, and Hagar Islambouli, former consul general in San Francisco, who later served as ambassador to the Republic of South Africa and now is special curator at Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
Advocates for peace
Most early missionaries went to the Middle East for the long haul, dedicating an entire career or lifetime to their calling. Extended daily contact with the Arab people gave mission educators a deep understanding of their history, culture, customs, politics, religions, attitudes and aspirations. This intimate knowledge of the people and their traditions, combined with a theological conviction of each individual’s worth in the sight of God, produced lasting friendships.
In many cases, those friendships led to advocacy and international diplomacy on behalf of the Arabs. For example, Presbyterian missionaries and Arab Americans educated in mission schools were among the first to raise concerns about the bloodshed likely to result from efforts to create a homeland for displaced Jewish people after World War II. Among those advocating a solution that would avoid the partitioning of Palestine was longtime Presbyterian missionary John Badeau, president of the American University in Cairo, who went on to serve as U.S. ambassador to Egypt in the early 1960s.
The creation of the State of Israel was only one of a series of upheavals affecting mission work in the Middle East in the mid-20th century. Others included the end of French and British occupation of Lebanon and Syria and several ensuing wars, a military-led revolution in Egypt and growing Arab nationalism. Many mission-operated village schools in Egypt were closed because of new government regulations. Financial difficulties and other issues led U.S. mission boards to transfer universities they had founded and operated, including their valuable property, to the administration of independent, autonomous and self-perpetuating boards. Without church representation on their boards, most of those universities became secular institutions.
Since the 19th century, educational institutions established by pioneering Presbyterians and their Congregational and Reformed cousins have spread Christian values and equipped national leaders in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and the other Gulf states.
The outcome was different for elementary and secondary schools. Instead of being nationalized, as were so many other foreign-controlled institutions, these schools remained under church oversight, with leadership transferred from the American church to its overseas partners. Today, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon operates four schools in Syria and seven in Lebanon, and the Synod of the Nile operates 25 schools in Egypt. With student bodies that are representative of their nations’ entire populations, these schools are continuing the vision of their founders. They are modeling best practices in teaching, learning and leadership and producing graduates equipped to pursue the goals of enlightenment and freedom.
The fruit of this educational mission, glimpsed in the demonstrations at Tahrir Square, offers hope for the rebuilding of societies and nations throughout the Arab Middle East.
“Presbyterian mission in the Middle East has been an incredible success story in many ways,” says Amgad Beblawi, coordinator of mission in the Middle East, Europe and Central Asia for the PC(USA). “The ministry endeavor that started in 1823 has left a permanent impact on the region. The labor of thousands of Presbyterian mission personnel continues to bear fruit to this day.”
Victor E. Makari is a graduate of Assiut (Egypt) College and the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, Egypt, both founded by Presbyterian missionaries. He served as coordinator of the Middle East office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Presbyterian Mission Agency from 1990 until 2010.
A distinguished honor roll
Graduates of mission-founded educational institutions in the Middle East include both secular and religious leaders:
Ahmad Zewail, from Egypt, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry
Charles Malik (died 1987), philosopher and former ambassador of Lebanon to the United Nations
Philip Hitti (died 1978), from Lebanon, professor at Princeton University and renowned chronicler of Arab history and civilization
Edward Said (died 2003), a Palestinian who had a distinguished career as professor at Columbia University, author, musician and peacemaker
Leah Rabin (died 2000), promoter of world peace and wife of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who studied with Jehan Sadat, wife of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, at the American University in Cairo
Mary Mikhael, former president, and George Sabra, current president of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut
Roseangela Jarjour, general secretary of the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches, and her husband, Riad Jarjour, general secretary of the Arab Group for Christian-Muslim Dialogue and former general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches
Atef Gendy, president of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo
Mission in the Middle East
“God’s mission in the Middle East is not finished,” says Amgad Beblawi, coordinator of mission in the Middle East, Europe and Central Asia for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “About 20 Presbyterian mission workers minister today alongside Middle East churches as they endeavor to be salt and light in their communities by addressing root causes of poverty and violence and equipping local churches for outreach.”
For more information about the region and PC(USA) involvement there:
Presbyterians at work around the world — Middle East
Find an interactive map, a webinar on the Arab Spring and other information on PC(USA) mission in the Middle East.
Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study
Find prayer lists, information and stories about mission around the world, including the Middle East.
Cradle of Our Faith
A 20-page booklet telling the story of Christianity in the Middle East from biblical times to the present.
"Arabic-speaking Christianity: A glorious past and a challenging future"
A 2004 lecture by Presbyterian scholar and former missionary Kenneth Bailey.
“Christians in the Middle East,” Horizons
September/October 2010 issue
“Christians in the Middle East”
A country-by-country guide from the BBC (October 2011)