Research program

Christian missions and societies in the Middle East: organizations, identities, heritagization (XIXth-XXIth centuries)

The research project MisSMO groups together around 20 researchers who specialize in missionary activity in the Middle East from the end of the XIXth century to the present day. The aim of the research programme is to situate the missions as regards the social and cultural evolution of the Middle East, from Ottoman modernity to the present day. It will be interesting to look at missionary activity on a regional scale, and no longer either on a national or a local scale. While examining the evolution of the form and organisation of the missions, we shall show how they brought about deep social and economic change, both for Christians and for Moslems in the Middle East.

  1. Missions and Powers

Our first point will be to put into perspective the relations that existed between the missionaries and the local authorities. For the Ottoman period (XIXth century), our project will look at the deployment of charitable and health-related initiatives by Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox missions. We will study the influence of these missions on the organisation and arabization of the local churches, as well as their role in training clerical and intellectual elites. For the Mandate period (between the two wars) we shall pay particular attention to the relations between the Protestant and the Catholic missions and the French and British authorities. The study will analyse the place of the missions in the setting up of a colonial system and colonial know-how, as well as the training of the personnel necessary to create mandate administrations that « look like a State ». We shall study the varying fates of the missions within States which, after the 1950s, adopt different policies towards them, from the closing of the denominational schools in Baathist Iraq to their nationalisation in Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian and Syrian societies, as well as the singular case of the Lebanon. This point will allow us to question more generally the notion of mission after the Ottoman period.


2 : Missions and local confessional identities

The first point raised the question of new local denominational identities. The arrival of the Missions in the Middle East effectively brought with it the development of new Churches, especially Protestant ones, not necessarily recognised by the authorities. This project proposes therefore, in a next step, to analyse the forms of organisation – charitable, humanitarian, militant and even secular – developed by the faithful of these Churches throughout the XXth century in order to claim official recognition[1]. To approach the question of denominational identities through the action of the missionaries highlights the practices and effects of this confessionnalization, without making it the automatic consequence of institutional features such as laws or constitutions. Moreover, these missions, destined first for Christians in the lands where they settled, often had to negotiate their place and their role faced with the « historic » Eastern Churches, while at the same time willing to have discussions and to interact with the Moslem populations. Today the result of this is a marked increase in the number of initiatives for Islamo-Christian and ecumenical dialogue at a regional level. It is thus as a space for contact between religions that the missions will be considered here, in order to estimate how far the « religious frontiers » built by these missions – as much between the different Christian groups as between Moslems and Christians – form a means for negotiating their presence with the different governments.

The question of conversions, which contravene this balance, will be the subject of particular attention.


3 : Missions and Gender

To the question of confessional identity can be added that of gender with all its implications. The missions played – and still play – a major role in the conception of gendered relations between individuals. Female apostolic life in the Middle East, inspired by the European model for a congregation, became an important phenomenon in the region, a sign of an original social dynamic. At the beginning of the XXIst century, male and female congregations, each with their own specificity, reorganised the space in towns, in villages, but also within families, with a status of privileged partners, even mediators, continually applied to. What was the importance, in these exchanges, of the question of gender as a status that was standardised both socially and religiously? How do individuals perceive and accept the actions of missionaries, both men and women? And finally, how do the missions influence the religious practices of Christian men and women – notably through new devotions to women – then, more broadly, those of Moslems? These points are all the more important in that we are henceforth confronted with the nationalisation of these congregations: in the case of Egypt, Egyptians decide for example to become Franciscans, while orthodox Coptic women become Catholics in order to join the Daughters of Charity, the Little Sisters of Jesus and even the Comboni missionaries. Is there a cultural impregnation and a gendered conception of these new vocations, which would transform the place of these new missionaries in the towns and villages where they lived? Can we even still consider them as « missionaries »? It is more specially the role of the female congregations that will be studied, but also the evolution of the role of women, from a religious point of view, in the everyday life of Christians and Moslems in the Middle East.

4 : Missions, Heritage, Knowledge

In the XIXth century, the establishment of missionary institutions formed the basis for knowledge of local societies. The latter was the result of the analyses made by the missionaries themselves and their collaboration with the religious institutions already established in the region, such as the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem. In this context, they contributed largely to the elaboration of sacred localities, including territories from the Middle East to the Holy Land. They thus spread, among the members of their flock, the perception of a gradual sacralisation of the Middle-eastern territories, involving phenomena of forgetting, of reinventing and of creating heritage. This last line of research, therefore, will attempt to understand how the local populations, Christians, Jews and Moslems, use these new spaces for religious, political or touristic purposes.


To conduct this project successfully, we shall put into perspective examples from Egypt to contemporary Turkey, via the Lebanon, Palestine and even Jordan. We compare the historical approach with ethnographical surveys, in order to establish an analysis of the history of the contemporary missions in the Middle East in the long term. This is possible notably via the study of documents from the Roman archives (Propaganda Fide, CEO, ASV), of various missionary congregations and orders (notably Jesuits, Salesians, Franciscans, Combini missionaries), as well as field surveys at a parish level, in order better to describe the evolution of the missions and their contribution to different societies, especially (for the Catholics) since Vatican II. Special attention is paid to the current dynamics of evangelical movements, which are particularly active among the immigrant populations of the region. While in the Holy Land congregations from the « South » of Africa, from Asia or from Latin America are making their appearance, it seems more than ever possible to use the Christian missionary fact as a regional observation point of a global religious phenomenon.

[1] This line of research will be led in collaboration with the project “Engaging Europe in the Arab World: European missionaries and humanitarianism in the Middle East (1850-1970)” Leiden/ IISMM/ IEG from in Germany, November 2015-October 2018, granted by the NWO, Dutch national agency for scientific research.

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