A magazine of the American Jesuits
Spring 1997 Issue: The Middle East
The Jesuits' Near East Province, headquartered in Beirut, comprises Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, and includes ministries common to Jesuits everywhere, education, parishes, spiritual direction, and social ministries, among others. One Jesuit, Fr. Peter duBrul, teaches religion at the University of Bethlehem. All of these works are colored by the fact that Catholics, indeed Christians, are a minority in this area. Even Lebanon's many Catholics are not Roman Catholics.
Christians in the Near East, however, trace their origins back to the earliest Christian centuries; it was in Antioch, Syria, that Jesus' followers were first called Christians. It is in this broad area that the Society has been laboring for many years.
Life was rough for most early Jesuits in Egypt. Some of their ministries were successful, but Jesuits were never numerous there. The first few Jesuits who arrived in the country in the 1500s came as slaves, captured by Mediterranean pirates and held for ransom. In the 1580s, two Jesuits came to attempt reconciliation between the Church in Rome and the Coptic Church but met with no success. Most Jesuits who came through Egypt in the early days were en route to Ethiopia. Many died of the plague, and one whole community died of flu in 1774.
Today, in freedom and in health but still with a range of challenges, 36 Jesuits work in Egypt. The greatest number are at the Collège de la Sainte-Famille in Cairo (see article), working in the school and engaged in a variety of ministries, from chaplaincies to writing. Three Jesuits in Alexandria staff a church, a center for university students, and a retreat house and serve as chaplains to Christian Life Communities. Further up the Nile at Minya, a Jesuit community of five runs a school, a social service center, and literacy programs; they are also chaplains to organizations such as a handicapped center and Scout troops. Further still up the Nile, in Armant el-Wabourât, near the ancient sites of Luxor, Memphis, and Karnak, one Jesuit is pastor of the Catholic church and helps with a new kind of religious organization of lay people consecrated to living the gospel life.
Jesuit Presence in Lebanon dates to 1578, when Pope Gregory XIII sent Frs. Tommaso Raggio and Giambattista Eliano to Lebanon in response to an initiative of the patriarch of the Maronite Church there. They returned to Rome and reported on the condition of the Maronite Church and its needs. The pope founded a Syriac printing press in Rome, which published a catechism and other books that the Jesuits wrote.
Eliano and another Jesuit, Giovanni Bruno, returned to Lebanon in 1580 with the books and with instructions for helping to build up the local Church. They attended a synod of the Lebanese Church, which was very successful in reestablishing ties with Rome. Three years later the pope sent an embassy to attempt reconciliation with several Eastern patriarchs; three Jesuits were part of the group, which traveled to Beirut, then on to Aleppo (Syria), but did not meet with success.
Jesuits first established somewhat permanent ministry in Lebanon in 1644 with missions in Sidon and Tripoli; the suppression of the Society in 1773 ended these works.In November 1831, when the restored Society was only eighteen years old, three Jesuits arrived in Beirut. They had come at the insistence of four Eastern patriarchs who sought help for their seminary at Ain-Traz in Syria. Arriving hungry, dirty, and exhausted, they found collapsed buildings and no students. As a result of their visiting an emir and a prince, they received property for two missions in Bikfaya and Mou'allaqa.
The mission station at Mou'allaqa became inadequate, and the ministry moved to Zahle, where the Jesuits began conducting retreats in 1854. An early historian notes that marvelous results were achieved: merchants "were now seen to correct their weights and measures and to use the same bushel measure in selling wheat as in buying." Even more gratifying was the cessation of traditional disputes that had raged between hostile groups, often with fatal consequences. At both Zahle and Bikfaya, Jesuits also promoted Catholic schools, to which both Catholic and Orthodox families sent their children. In Bikfaya, the Orthodox risked excommunication by their patriarch for so doing.
In 1843 Fr. Benedict Planchet founded a seminary in a ruined palace at Ghazir, two years later it became a seminary under the patronage of St. Joseph. Civil wars ravaged the region in 1845, and among the almost 8,000 Christians killed were five Jesuits, a priest and four brothers. The seminary, closed for a while, reopened in 1846; nine years later it was moved to Beirut and became the foundation for St. Joseph's University. (see related article)
In 1847, Jesuits brought to Beirut from France a small printing press, from which grew a publishing house. For 33 years the director of the press was Brother Elias, SJ, a converted Muslim, the son of a poor mule-driver from Mount Carmel, who was an artist, engraver, and mechanic. After learning the printing trade in London he devised a method that simplified the printing of the complicated Arabic script while retaining its beauty. Brother Elias's printing of a Bible translated into Arabic at St. Joseph's received a gold medal in Paris in 1878. The work of the press expanded from book publishing to include a newspaper and a number of journals.
There are 58 Jesuit in today's Lebanon, the largest number in Beirut, where province headquarters is. Most of them are at St. Joseph's University, teaching, conducting research in the Oriental Library, or publishing. St. Joseph's is where young Jesuits study after their novitiate years in Cairo. Jesuits also conduct spiritual organizations and chaplaincies and conduct a special college for Armenian Catholics and run a high school at Jamhour. In other parts of the country Jesuits in Bikfaya continue the spiritual ministry work that their predecessors began their in the 1830s, and a retreat house at Tanaïl is also the center for social and chaplaincy ministries.
In 1872, Jesuits began ministry in Damascus in what is now Syria. At first they took only temporary lodging on the outskirts from which they ministered to the caravans traversing the black basalt plain known as the Hauran. Six years later they were given charge of an ancient holy place in the Christian quarter of Damascus, the house where St. John Damascene lived in the 600s. The bishop asked the Jesuits to continue ministry to the Christians of the Hauran, a minority in the population of about 85,000. France sent financial support, and in 1880 the Jesuits opened a dozen schools, two of the constructed as simply as Bedouin tents.
In 1873 Jesuits opened a residence for ministry in Aleppo, which Christians -- already a minority -- were very divided. They also began working in Homs, beginning with a school for girls.
The thirteen Jesuits living and working in Syria today continue the work that began in the 1800s in Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs. This work includes chaplaincies, parish and catechetical work, and building a new retreat center.