6 lessons from 100 years of history

The Protestant history of the Middle East is one of not only diverse religious life, but also contributions to Ottoman and Arab society, according to a new publication from Rev Dr Deanna Ferree Womack. The book, Protestants, Gender and the Arab Renaissance in Late Ottoman Syria (2019, Edinburgh University Press) retraces the steps of early Protestant missionaries to Syria (bilad al-Sham) to explore the experiences of the Syrian Protestant converts and their families.

Dr Womack, Assistant Professor of History of Religions and Multifaith Relations at Emory University, shared several insights from her new book with the Christian-Muslim Studies Network. In her comments below, see six often-overlooked takeaways from the Middle East’s Protestant heritage.

1) Syria was the first site of American missionary activity in the Middle East.

Deanna Womack: I decided to study Protestants in Ottoman Syria because that was the first location where American missionaries went in the Middle East and because the Evangelical Church of Beirut, founded in 1848, was the very first predominantly Arab Protestant church.

I had also lived in Lebanon, had been to the Evangelical Church of Beirut, and knew the region and some of the historical resources available. I came across materials on the Evangelical Independent Church in Beirut when I was farther into my research. It only existed for a short time around the turn of the century, so its story is almost completely unknown. Finding such unknown materials about certain eras of history is what makes archival research so rewarding. The letters and documents about the Evangelical Independent Church helped to explain the differences of opinion between some Beiruti Protestants and the American missionaries, and to explain why the Evangelical Church of Beirut is a Congregational church today and not Presbyterian, even though the Presbyterians took over the Syria Mission in 1870.

2) Armenian Christians were among the first Protestants in the Middle East.

I say predominantly Arab [in reference to the Evangelical Church of Beirut] because some of the members were Armenians who worshipped there in Arabic. At that point both Arabs and Armenians in the region called themselves Syrians.

(3) Devout Syrian Protestant women contributed significantly to the Nahda (Arab renaissance).

When I began my dissertation research that eventually led to my book, Christine Lindner and Ellen Fleischmann both had already written some important articles about Syrian Protestant women. But books on the American Syria Mission and books on women in the nahda had little information about Protestant women involved in the Arab renaissance. That is to say, although some of the women who appear in my book had been recognized by scholars of the women’s nahda, little was said about their Protestant identities. So I did not initially intend to find writings by committed Protestant women—women who were deeply involved in the religious life of the church but who also advanced what has been presented as a “secular” Arab Renaissance. I didn’t know that such writings existed. Instead, I was looking for the writings of Protestant men when I found that a number of Syrian women’s publications had been preserved in the Near East School of Theology library in Beirut. Then I shifted the focus of my project.

In terms of a method for historical research, I think it is important to be flexible and willing to change course based on the source materials one finds, similar to the way ethnographers let their informants lead them. Historians intentionally looking for marginalized voices can also glean information by reading between the lines of what missionaries wrote. I did this for some of my research on Biblewomen, whose written reports were translated and published (and thereby mediated) by missionaries.

4) Arabic is a shared heritage for both Muslims and Christians in the Middle East.

In terms of interfaith relationships, it is problematic and counter-productive to associate Arabic only with Islam. Christians in the West do this sometimes and even overlook the existence of fellow Christians who worship God in Arabic. Some Arab Christians and some Arab Muslims may also make such claims, but for different reasons. Although country-by-country we may find differences in the ways that Arab Christians and Arab Muslims express themselves religiously or even in daily life, with regard to interfaith understanding it is important to acknowledge Arabic as a shared language for Christians and Muslims. As my book mentions, Christians contributed to the formation of modern Arabic alongside Muslims in the nahda.

Arabic is a language that developed alongside Islam, but it has also been a Christian Arab language for centuries. With that said, I don’t know if the converts I wrote about felt burdened by the task of defining themselves in a language that developed long before the concept of Protestant conversion. But because so many Protestants in the nahda era took pride in the Arabic language and in their own Arab-Islamic heritage, I suspect that what seems challenging to us today may not have seemed so challenging to them.

5) Studies of Middle East Christianity can span multiple worlds, fitting with both World Christianity and Middle Eastern Studies.

One of the challenges is to help students and other scholars see Arab Christianity (or Middle Eastern Christianity more broadly) as a valuable area of study that could add to discussions in World Christianity (and in Middle Eastern Studies). For those who already want to study Arab Christianity, challenges include access to source materials and securing funding for travel to the Middle East. If scholars want to study Arab Christianity broadly and not focus on just one country, and especially if Israel and Palestine are included on the itinerary, then they may have to navigate passport and visa issues too. So logistical and security issues could be more of a concern than for certain other regions where scholars go to study World Christianity. In addition, there are fewer secondary sources on Middle Eastern Christianity to build upon than, say, for African Christianity.

6) Middle Eastern Christianity can offer centuries-old models for Christian-Muslim relations.

I would like to see more dissertations and more books on Arab and Middle Eastern Christianity. We have a growing number of books now on the history of missions in the region, but not as much has been done on the diversity of Christian traditions in the Middle East, past and present. Scholars of World Christianity should see Middle Eastern Christians as part of the global Christian story. Some do, but I don’t know of any World Christianity book series that includes a volume on Middle Eastern Christianity.

For teaching on Christian-Muslim relations, it would also be great to have more publications on the ways Middle Eastern Christians and Muslims live together and navigate differences.