Weeping over Jerusalem: Anglicans and Refugee Relief in the Middle East, 1895-1950

Article excerpt

On numerous occasions in recent years leaders of the Episcopal Church have been prominent in calling attention to the plight of refugees in the Middle East, especially the catastrophic hardships endured by thousands of Palestinians since the end of the Six-Day War of 1967. At the 1985 General Convention, for example, the bishops and deputies of the church asked for increased "support of schools, hospitals, and institutions, ministering to displaced persons and refugees" within the jurisdiction of the Anglican bishop in Jerusalem.1 During its meeting in late February 1989 the Executive Council also expressed "its profound dismay at . . . the inhumane and untenable living conditions and lack of basic human rights endured by Palestinian refugees in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan." And as a group of Episcopal laywomen reported following a tour of the Middle East in January 1990, Palestinians in refugee camps were forced to endure "harassment and oppression . . . beyond your wildest imagination" - suffering that made them, as western Christians, feel like "weeping over Jerusalem like Jesus did."'

This article will explore the historical context out of which these passionate responses to social conditions in the Middle East have emerged, for there is, in fact, an almost two-hundred year history of engagement by Anglicans and Episcopalians with humanitarian relief in the region. Like all the European powers at the start of the nineteenth century Great Britain desired a concrete presence within the Ottoman Empire - an aspiration that was effectively realized in 1841 with the establishment of an Anglican bishopric in Jerusalem. Although the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews provided the original impetus for the founding of this see, high-church Anglicans, despite their initial opposition to its creation, soon came to view the Jerusalem bishopric as an unprecedented opportunity for them to reach out to the ancient churches of the East. Assisting Palestine's native Christians in practical ways through schools and hospitals, they reasoned, would have two major benehts: it would both strengthen the local base for the conversion of Muslims and Jews to Christianity while also encouraging Orthodox leaders to regard their church as a legitimate ally in ongoing battles with Roman Catholics over access to religious sites in the Holy Land.4 By the time of George F. P. Blyth's appointment as the fourth Anglican bishop in 1887, moreover, the highchurch party held such firm control over the mission in Jerusalem that the fostering of sympathetic relations with prelates of the various local churches - Greeks, Armenians, Syrians, Copts, and Ethiopians - was thought to be the bishop's principal duty.11

Running parallel to the Anglican colonial enterprise in Palestine was the archbishop of Canterbury's sponsorship of a mission among the East Syrian (also known as "Assyrian") Christians of northern Persia and eastern Anatolia. Although British missionaries and diplomats had first made contact with those churches in the 1820s, the publication of A. C. Tait's "Appeal on Behalf of the Christians of Assyria" (1870) marked the beginning of a concerted Anglican effort in that part of the Middle East. In his "Appeal" Archbishop Tait called for the creation of a fund drat would aid a persistently embattled religious community in a faraway land. Interest in the Assyrians further expanded under Tait's successor, E. W. Benson, who stressed the need for Anglicans to uphold this "simple, much-oppressed, earnest race" in maintaining a Christian presence in an area otherwise dominated by Islam. This endeavor, later dubbed "The Archbishop's Mission to the Assyrian Church," ultimately supported a staff of thirteen missionaries that offered educational and medical assistance to the Christian population in Persia and its environs.6

Central to the founding of both these nineteenth-century Anglican missions - in Palestine and in Persia - was the belief that Christians living within the Ottoman Empire were constantly vulnerable to persecution and violence at the hands of their Muslim neighbors. …