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The Presbyterian Church in the Middle East

The Presbyterian Evangelical movement offers faith, education and healthcare for people throughout the Middle East.

text and photographs by Rev. Kenneth Bailey, Th.D.

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In the 19th century, American and Scottish Presbyterians began work in what is today Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. In that same period, Anglicans and Lutherans established themselves in the Holy Land while the Reformed (Dutch) Church of America braved the harsh deserts of the Arabian Gulf. Baptists and Pentecostals, however, did not arrive in the area until the second half of the 20th century.

Syria and Lebanon. In 1819, a small group of American Presbyterians set foot in Beirut, Lebanon. By 1823 they had learned Arabic and established their presence in the country. After centuries of oppressive Ottoman Turkish rule, a pressing need for the people on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean was education. Village schools provided a demanding but rewarding start for meeting this need. In just a few years, there were more than 700 students in numerous towns and villages around Beirut. A school for girls opened, the first of its kind in the entire Ottoman Empire, which stretched from North Africa to Iraq. Happily, that Evangelical School for Girls has survived both the test of time and the ravages of war.

The Presbyterian Mission village school outreach program gradually spread as far as Aleppo in northern Syria to villages on the banks of the Euphrates. Primary schools provided the impetus for building secondary schools in major urban centers such as Aleppo, Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli.

By 1867 the Presbyterian Mission sensed that the entire region needed a university; a recently founded theological training school in Aley, Lebanon, already had a popular arts course. That same year, the arts course was separated from the seminary, relocated to Beirut and renamed the Syrian Protestant College.

The language of instruction was Arabic and a Reformed Church medical doctor named Cornelius Van Dyck founded the Middle East first medical school as part of the university. To do so he was obliged to Arabize all medical vocabulary and then compose medical textbooks in Arabic, a feat not duplicated even by Arabs for more than a century. The Syrian Protestant College founded by Van Dyck and his colleagues eventually evolved into the American University of Beirut, a school that has educated many of the top leaders of numerous Middle Eastern countries throughout the 20th century.

Van Dyck was also a man of letters and was the final editor of a new Arabic Bible, completed in 1865. One of his local Protestant collaborators in that great project was a famous Lebanese scholar, Butrus al-Bustani, who translated the entire New Testament and most of the Old Testament from the original Greek and Hebrew. Millions of copies of this Bible were sold across the Arab world; it remains the official Arabic language Bible for Egypt Coptic Orthodox Church. Bustani also edited the Arabic language first multivolumed encyclopedia and wrote many of its articles.

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Tags: Middle East Christians Christian-Muslim relations The Presbyterian Church