Christian Missions and Humanitarianism in the Middle East, from 1850 to 1950 "Les Capucins Français en Syrie: Secours aux Indigents" postcard, Collection Gélébart

Christian Missions and Humanitarianism in the Middle East, from 1850 to 1950

Christian missions have played a significant role in humanitarian aid in the Middle East. The 1850s to the 1950s saw a significant change in their orientation: from pietist movements to social service-centred institutions.

During the Israeli-Palestinian War of 1947–48, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes. Not only international agencies and non-governmental organizations responded to this humanitarian crisis. Aid also involved Christian mission institutions, already historically present and active in the region. Christian schools and dispensaries in the old city of Jerusalem welcomed numerous Arab families during the turbulent months of May and June 1948.

This humanitarian reaction of the Christian missions towards people in need was far from a new phenomenon. The German Protestant Syrian Orphanage in Jerusalem, for example, was founded in 1860 as a response to the civil war in Syria the same year. During the following decades, the orphanage developed into the largest missionary institution in the country. Like this orphanage, many Christian missions in the Middle East transformed progressively from pietist movements to social services-centred institutions.

Already in the nineteenth century, many Christian missionaries supported welfare activities aimed at improving people’s lives, mostly presented as subservient to the preaching of Christianity. Missions faced major obstacles in their attempt to convert locals: Ottoman authorities prohibited proselytizing Muslims and local Orthodox Churches opposed the poaching of their flock. In response, mission organisations increasingly shifted their focus from evangelisation to health and education, frequently changing their vocation according to local demands. One of the central activities of mission-related humanitarianism from the 1860s on, concerned the question of relief and refugees of the Middle East, due to repeated waves of forced migration since the 1850s – producing an expertise still relevant today.

Missionaries were far from a homogenous group: some were well-connected, others more isolated, some acted as international protagonists, others were local workers, some were obsessed by the nation-state idea, others not, some missionaries were gatekeepers of colonial states, some distanced themselves from them. They acted simultaneously and on various scales, within a competitive landscape of charities. Our recent book examines institutional and individual strategies within national and local contexts, to clarify the motives and effects of Christian missions in delivering aid and to highlight their role in the history of humanitarianism in the Middle East.

Some studies tackling humanitarianism define it in ways that reflect the present, as emergency response during and after crises, but the term can also be used historically. Many Christian missions discussed the notion of “humanity” in the Arab world, influenced by their history of social engagement in local areas in Europe. Catholic and Protestant missionaries, aiming at regaining the Holy Land through religious, cultural, and philanthropic influence, established and circulated competing collective narratives in which the notion of humanity was central.

During times of war, mission work was transformed to performing immediate relief. After World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations’ mandate system provided a new framework for Catholic and Protestant missions. Humanitarianism in the Middle East was brought under the ambit of the League of Nations, though humanitarian efforts continued through volunteer and relief organisations. France and Great Britain, the Mandate powers in the Middle East, welcomed mission societies as contributors to the modernisation of health and education in the Mandates.

The interwar period was a time of transition and re-orientation in the Christian missions. The bloodshed of the war years had a global impact, and it was no longer possible to argue that Christianity and civilization were one and the same. The humanitarian aspect came even more to the forefront. The complexity of faith-based relief work and modern relief is exemplified by British and Swedish missions in Mandatory Palestine. They maintained pre-war schools and hospitals, in addition to contributing crucial relief to the poorer segments of the Muslim population in the country. Thus, these missionaries were redefining and accommodating their mission in relation to the interwar scene, but also answering to new international trends regarding how to interpret their Christian mission. They turned to a civilising mission that sought to modernise the world, as put forward at the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference.

In 1947–48, Christian missions, long present in the region, contributed relief to Palestinian refugees alongside international agencies and nongovernmental organizations. The humanitarian actions of Christian missionaries during the war of 1948 and its aftermath is an example of encounters in the Middle East being much more complex than a “secular” Western world meeting a “religious” Arab or even Muslim world.

By this time, global humanitarianism had emerged in the context of post-World War II and the independence of several Arab countries. This included the creation of the UN and its agencies, with new understandings of human rights and refugees’ priorities. After having previously fulfilled public service/health functions in colonial settings, many missionaries now endorsed the “development workers” label.

Have a look at the open-access volume Christian Missions and Humanitarianism in the Middle East, 1850-1950: Ideologies, Rhetoric and Practices (Brill, LSIS 11, 2020), which traces the historical links between Christian missionaries, the roots of humanitarianism, its different modalities, and local encounters in a Middle Eastern context.