Primary and secondary schools, colleges, and universities established by Christians to do charitable work and promote conversion.
In the Middle East, Christian missionary schools were founded in the wake of the extension of Western power and influence in the Ottoman Empire during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. With the demise of the empire, the European domination of the region, and then the European mandates over the post–World War I successor states, a variety of motives led both lay and religious organizations to aid in the educational enterprise of modernizing the peoples of the region.
Muhammad Ali in Egypt and his son Ibrahim Pasha in Syria facilitated the entry of such groups; the Ottoman millet system—which granted limited autonomy to the various Christian communities—allowed Christians to bring in missionaries to staff new schools and train teachers in the sciences, which were considered the secret of Western power and prestige. Practically all Western nations sent missionaries at some time, but the most sustained efforts were those of the American Board of Christian Missions (ABCM) and the Arabian Mission (both U.S. Protestant), the North African Mission (French Protestant), the Church Missionary Society (British Anglican), and a variety of Roman Catholic orders and congregations.
Until almost the end of the twentieth century, the desire of Westerners to bring education and enlightenment to the peoples of the Middle East coincided with the peoples' desire for learning and was considered a service rather than a cultural intrusion. Moreover, the schools registered a presence and an influence that were not considered religious per se. Christian missionary schools were, in fact, religiously motivated, but the sensitivity of the dominant Muslim population was respected, since Islam opposed any attempts at direct conversion or proselytization. Christian religious efforts remained within the faith—with Roman Catholics trying to attract Christians separated from Rome and with Protestants trying to convert Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. Many Roman Catholic educational efforts began as seminaries that trained local clergy for the Eastern churches.
Several missionary schools developed into notable institutions and have become landmarks in the history of the region: the American University of Beirut, Saint Joseph University of Beirut, Aleppo College, Baghdad College (now Baghdad University), Robert College of Istanbul (now Boğaziçi University), and the American University in Cairo. Undoubtedly, the widespread elementary schools in Lebanon and Syria had the broadest impact. In 1894, for example, the Jesuits (Society of Jesus) had 192 primary schools in the region with students numbering some 8,000 boys and 3,000 girls, and the American Protestant Mission had 130 primary schools with more than 7,000 students. Today, the teaching orders of men, of women, and of dedicated Christian lay teachers—all citizens of Middle Eastern countries—still direct primary and secondary schools that were formerly mission operations.
After the demise of the Ottoman Empire, during the European-dominated years of the first half of the twentieth century, only a limited opposition to these schools existed, mostly in Islamic religious circles. The national governments produced by the post-World War II revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s, however, tightened controls over all education—limiting not only missionary schools but all private education—as in Syria in 1967 and Iraq in 1969. In North Africa the new governments also limited private schools, and then in the 1970s, an Islamic religious dimension was added to the growing regional preoccupation with national cultural identities—culminating in a growing Islamist political movement and the successful Iranian Revolution of 1979, which set out to eliminate all non-Islamic cultural influences. Since that time, a new set of forces, both social and political, has been in the making throughout the region.
john j. donohue