The Reverend George Percy Badger and the Syrian Orthodox communities of the Tur Abdin. Contact with the Protestant West and its consequences – Professor Robert Brenton Betts,

Posted by on May 5, 2016 in Library | Comments Off on The Reverend George Percy Badger and the Syrian Orthodox communities of the Tur Abdin. Contact with the Protestant West and its consequences – Professor Robert Brenton Betts,

American University of Beirut.

To be read at the
Symposium on Mor Michael the Syrian, October 1-8, at Saint Ephrem Theological
Seminary, Ma’arat Saydnaya, Syria.

Mor Michael the Syrian is best known for his Chronicles which are a major source of how Muslims and non-Catholic Christians of his time viewed the era of the Crusades. Today I would like to address a later crusade, about which Michael would have had equal, if not stronger, reservations, that of the missions of the Church of Rome, beginning in the middle of the 16th century, and later the various Protestant sects of Britain and America, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, aimed at bringing members of the ancient Eastern Churches into their respective folds.

An exception to this rule was the Church of England, which for various reasons (not the least of which stemmed from its status as the established church of the British Empire) began to take a serious interest in these churches from the 1840’s onwards. It had no plans to convert these Christians into Anglicans, though a local Anglican church did eventually evolve in Palestine, and was primarily concerned with assisting them undertake some needed and basic institutional reforms which would help them resist the aggressive intentions of the other two groups.
One of the earliest Anglican clergymen to investigate these ancient churches in situ, was the Reverend George Percy Badger. In March of 1842 he was given an undertaking by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Bishop of London to establish contact with the Nestorian Christians of Kurdistan, and their patriarch whose once mighty ecclesiastical establishment had shrunk to a small community of beleaguered mountaineers in the remotest upper reaches of the Greater Zab. In his two volume account of his travels and researches, published in 1852, Father Badger emerges as a very sympathetic person, genuinely attached to the eastern churches and their faithful, free of many of the prejudices that prevailed among his contemporaries, or at least less infected by them, and determined to help these churches, in any way he could, to strengthen themselves internally and, utimately to survive.

The Anglicans were already latecomers to the Middle East when, in April of 1842, Badger set out for Anatolia, armed with letters from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London to the eastern churches of Kurdistan. The Catholic Church had long been active in the area and non-Anglican Protestant groups were also firmly established. It is hard to figure out which of the two the Anglican priest disliked the most, but it is clear from Badger’s narrative that the Church of England was hoping to prevent either from making any further inroads among the members of the ancient eastern churches.

Rather ironically Anglican presence in the Ottoman Empire had been pre-empted by the rump remnant of the church in the United States, The Protestant Episcopal Church, in the person of the Reverend Horatio Southgate who met Badger on his arrival in Constantinonle in June, 1842. A rather controversial figure, Southgate had, in Badger’s words “been sent out originally to labour among the Mohammedans of Persia, but….was now directing his efforts to the amelioration of the spiritual condition of the Jacobites”. Badger’s ultimate goal was the Nestorians and their patriarch, Mar Sham’un, at Julemerk in the Hakkiri region of Kurdistan. He never actually reached this remote site, rather making his acquaintance of the patriarch in Mousel at the end of July, 1843, whence he had fled with many of his people to escape Kurdish massacres.

Badger had been much intrigued, however, by conversations with the Syrian Orthodox Bishop of Mosul, Mutan Behnam, who just happened to be staying with Southgate while attempting to convince the Sultan to restore “several churches and church lands in the district of Diarbekir and Mosul, which had been seized upon by the dissenters from their body, who had submitted to the see of Rome”. Consequently he took upon himself to add the Syrian Orthodox to his mission of inquiry and assistance.

Thus in the introduction to his book he states: “The Syrian Monophysites, or Jacobites, will frequently come under notice in the ensuing pages, and a full account will be given of their present condition as a Christian sect; for although it formed no part of the auther’s instructions to make any researches among this people, yet he was thrown into circumstances where duty called him to assist in a struggle which is not yet ended between them and the dissenters from their body who have joined the communion of the Church of Rome. In so doing he was necessarily brought into friendly relations with their Patriarch and Bishops, and during his residence at Mosul, and when visiting the principal towns and villages inhabited by this people, he found many opportunities of labouring for their welfare; and although truth forbids that he should give a very favourable account of the state of religion and ecclesiastical disipline among them, yet he will ever cherish a pleasing recollection of the hospitality and kindness wjth which he was received. When they knew him to be a priest of the Church of England”.

Even before this visit it is clear that he already knew a great deal about the Syrian church
and its history. especially the eastern branch, which is not surprising since his mission was to have been principally directed to the Nestorians. It is doubtful that he was familiar with Mor Michael; he does not mention him by name, and the Chronicles were not widely circulated in Europe until the very end of the 19th century. Of Bar Hebraeus, the great
13th century Mafrian of Mar Mattai, he was certainly aware since his writings had been published in Arabic with a parallel Latin translation in the late 17 century at Oxford, and he was familiar with the reference to Ibn al-Faraj in Edward Gibbon’s late 18th century classic, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. When he first visited Mar Mattai in 1843 he noted that even “the scoffer Gibbon [whose dislike of the Byzantines was visceral], contrary to his wont. .describes [the mafrian as] so truly eminent both in his life and death [ that] ..a train of Greeks and Annenians. forgetting their disputes. .. mingled their tears over the death of an enemy”.

Most of Badger’s knowledge of the Western Syrian Church, however. was gained on the spot, by extended conversation with two bishops in particular, the aforementioned Mar Behnam in Constantinople and later at Mardin and Dayr az-Za’faran, and Mutran Matta with whom he afterwards became well acquainted at Mosul, and who later retired to Mar Mattai. Badger made two visits to the region -first in 1842-44 as part of his mission to the Nestorians, and later in 1850 when he and his wife made a special trip to the villages of the Tur Abdin which he was not able to travel to in his earlier trip.

One ofhis principal tasks on that first visit was to clarify the position of his own church both historically and theologically. He was horrified to find that the Syrian Orthodox were profoundly ignorant of us, and in most cases looked upon us as a sect of Protestants, differing little if at all, from the Independents”. “Independents” is the term Badger uses, with obvious distaste, when referring to “non-confonnists” in England and America, especially the Presbyterians and Congregationalists who were the most active of their sort in the Middle East. So he spent much of his time explaining that Anglicans were but a branch of the holy, catholic and apostolic church which had broken from the yoke of Rome, just as the Syrian Orthodox and Nestorians had broken from the imperial church of their time, while still retaining the sacraments and the hierarchical rule of bishops. For the idependent Protestants he had little time or truck.

He refused to meet any of their missionaries. Conversations with Rev. Southgate, he states, “confinned me in the opinion that I ought to hold no intercourse with them.” His mission was to introduce the Church of England to the ancient churches of the east, “to make known to them, not only our good will towards them, but our doctrines and constitution; How could I rightly perfonn the latter, if at the same time friendly intercourse with those who were doing all in their power to create schisms in the churches, pointed me out as their associate? Or how could I justify such intercourse with my repeated expositions and assurances to them that the Independents were not of us, but originally Separatists from the Church of England, and held doctrines widely differing from our own? It was impossible”.

He took a particularly dim view of the Independent Protestants’ sole reliance upon scripture, or more precisely their own interpretation ofit, for church authority. “Talk of the infallibility of the Pope!”, he exclaims at one point. “These young men seemed to lay claim to inspiration, and decided what was truth and what was error with the assurance of Apostles; theirs”, he said, “was evidently a religion of negation. ..As to all outward forms and sacred rites, these they looked upon with contempt, and it made one’s heart sick to hear these children of yesterday treat with scorn and derision things which their forefathers and the holy Church throughout the world had revered since the beginning of Christianity. Sad, sad indeed, is it to think what the necessary consequences of such teaching must be!”. He held out the hope, however, that Protestantism of the “Independent” variety would not overwhelm the ancient Syrian church. “I am fully persuaded, he says, “that the partial success of the Independents will be ephemeral. .They may succeed in spreading abroad a vast amount of secular knowledge through the medium of their schools, and may bring up many eastern youths to argue and to dispute, but the good, if any, will rest here”. In retrospect these are very prophetic words indeed.

As for the Catholic lnission to attract Syrian Orthodox and Nestorians to the uniate branches established by it in the 16 and 17th centuries for the purpose of bringing all of eastern Christianity under its sway, Badger showed more understanding, particularly of the motives of those who proved receptive to the papal blandishments.

“I have myself met with numerous instances ofvillage churches belonging to the Jacobites and Nestorians, which were going to ruin, and the people obliged to worship in a private house, because the provincial authorities prevented their restoration unless the necessary firman was first obtained. To procure this a large sum is always demanded, which they were unable to pay: whilst the dissenters to Rome, by applying through their Bishop or Patriarch to the nearest French consul or to the French ambassador at Constantinople, obtained the requisite sanction without any trouble or delay”. Moreover the Catholicg’dedication to education and the opening of many schools, a tactic later followed by the Independent Protestants, attracted many defectors. This was especially true in large urban centers. “Secession has left them [the Syrian Orthodox] only a name at Damascus”, and “In Aleppo, where they once numbered several hundred families, not more than ten Jacobite families now exist, the rest having joined the Church of Rome.” In Mosul there were now “an equal number of Catholic and Jacobite Syrians; At Mardeen and Diarbekir, as we have seen, there are rival communities of Romanist Syrians; at Urfah the Latin missionaries have already gathered a few stragglers to their flock; and if Jebel Toor has not hitherto furnished its quota of converts, it is because no measures have yet been taken to induce its rude inhabitants to acknowledge the supremacy of the Italian Pontiff”.

He was less pleased with what he saw as the more unattrac!ive aspects of Roman Catholic worship. When he visited the Chaldaean Catholic village of Tell Kayf, north of Mosul, he noted with obvious distaste that one of the two small churches there “contains no less than four confessionals, and the walls are covered with clumsy pictures of saints dressed in the most guard apparel”.

Education among the Syrian Orthodox laity, as noted by Badger, was at “a very low ebb. Not withstanding the comarative affluance of this community, I believe that there do not exist among them more than twenty small schools in the whole of Turkey, where their population amount to something like 100,000 souls”. The Catholics, however, had “provided better means for their education and support, and are far more united in concord and design than the community from which they have seceded”. And to make matters worse for the Syrian Orthodox, he noted, “Now the Independents are vexing them”. Thus, he concludes, “they have no other resource left to help them in the work of reform than the Church of England. ..and”, he continues, “at this time I have abundant proof from [Mosul] and the villages around, that the Jacobites here would hail with gladness, and receive with gratitude, a mission from the Anglican Church.”.

This was, however, not to be. While the fruits of Badger’s labors on behalf of the Nestorians did in fact lead ultimately to strong ties between them and the Anglican Church
by the end of the 19th century, no lasting bonds with the Syrian Orthodox were forged, but not for want of trying. Following Badger’s first visit, Mutran Behnam “Joined with a number of his people who had held intercourse with us in 1842-44, and had been led to desire a better state of things, in writing to the Lord Bishop of London, the Anglican Bishop at Jerusalem, and the Church Missionary Society, begging that teachers might be sent out to them; but no notice whatever was taken of their request. In 1849 the American Independents answered the appeal, and although, as I am fully persuaded, the Syrians would have preferred assistance from us, such was their ardent desire for improvement. ..that they welcomed the missionary who was sent out to them, and continue to frequent his meetings in spite of the excommunications which have been issued against a few of their number by their diocesan. Thus another schism has been formed, and another field opened to the spread of sectarian doctrines”.

Throughout the last half of the 19th century, Protestant missinnaries operated in the area, at one time maintaining a station at Mardin. Schools were established there and in Tur Abdin, and toward the end of the century were are told, prayer meetings at Midyat were “well attended” and the Protestant Jacobites of Midyat and the Tur Abdin , notably Killith, “were contributing to the relative prosperity of the villages in which they resided”.

Many later observers took a more jaundiced view of the Protestant missionary effort. Gertrude Bell in her visits to Mosul and the Tur Abdin in the very early years of this century, noted that American and English Protestant missionaries were responsible for a general “pious confusion. ..There are Syrian [Orthodox] Protestants and Nestorian Protestants-if the terms be admissible-though whether the varying shades of belief held by the instructors are reflected in the instructed, I do not know, and I refrained from an inquiry which might have resulted in the revelation of Presbyterian Nestorians, Church of England Jacobites, or even Methodist Chaldaeans”. As for the Catholic missionary efforts, she was even more terse. “The unification, so far as it has gone, of the two ancient Churches with Rome is an unmitigated misfortune”.

A few years later, Mark Sykes, who was to become the co-architect of the famous, or infamous, Sykes-Picot treaty of World War I, visited the region and took a very dim view of the Protestants he encountered. On a visit to Killith he tells of meeting “a sinister and oleaginous person [ who] squirmed up to me, and, having assumed an attitude half- cringing, half-insolent, said; ‘Yow air English. I arlso tark Eenglish; I read the good book, being Protestant’. Now I will here state, on my honour, that I have been trying to take an unbiased view of American missionary effort; yet when I saw this fellow, why was it I thought of Uriah Heep?”. Sykes was for some curious reason convinced that the Syrian Orthodox were actually Kurds. Describing the Christians of the Tur Abdin as a seemingly “intelligent and hospitable race of people”, he noted that “in appearance and language the Jacobites differ not in the slightest from the Kurds: indeed, at first glance it would seem probable that they are of the same race. ..However, races are difficult to unravel in this country”, he acknowledges, “for bad Church history, Moslem unanimity, and Armenian falsehoods have almost completely destroyed or obliterated legendary tradition”.

The First World War brought a suspension of missionary effort and also great trial and suffering to the Christian peoples of Anatolia and Kurdistan. In its aftermath, many of the self -designated Protestants drifted back to their own parent communities. The American Presbyterian mjnister, Norman Homer, who visited the Tur Abdin in 1975, spent some time in the village of Killith, renamed Dereici by the Turks, where 20 families out of a total of 200 were still described as Protestants. Their church stood very close to that of the Syrian Orthodox but was no longer used since the Protestant minister had died the year before and his family emigrated to Sweden. The remaining Protestants now worshipped with the rest of the community in the Orthodox church, and, according to Homer “Relationships between the two communities seem to be especially cordial”.

This appears to be the pattern of recent years. Those Christians of Syrian Orthodox origins who still consider themselves Protestant either worship in Arabic or Armenian- speaking congregations, or if there are none, with their own original parent church. Their numbers are, in any event, few. Despite the fears of Badger and others that the “Independents” would attract serious numbers away from the ancient Syrian church have long ago proven unfounded. The Syrian Orthodox community which Badger estimated at 100,000 in 1850, numbers today in the same territories nearly twice that figure according to recently published estimate (186,200), despite massacres during World War I, and the emigration of tens of thousands to new homes in Western Europe, North America and Australia.
The Catholic mission proved more lasting and, in terms of numbers, more damaging. The same estimate gave the Syrian Catholic figure for the same region as just over 100,000. Thus nearly 300,000 Christians of the Western Syrian tradition are still living in the former territories of the Ottoman Empire. The Reverend Badger would no doubt be pleased to see the present healthy state of the church for whom he cherished great hopes, and in no small way gratified that the divisive efforts of the “Independents” had been thwarted.

The Reverend George Percy Badger and the Syrian Orthodox communities of the Tur Abdin. Contact with the Protestant West and its consequences

– Professor Robert Brenton Betts,