Middle East, the Church in the
Author: Toronto, James A.
Political turmoil in the Ottoman empire, two world wars, and restrictions imposed by local governments have challenged the efforts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to establish an official presence in the Middle East. Despite these difficulties, the Church has small congregations in several Middle Eastern countries, mostly because of the influx of expatriate (mainly American) Church members working there. Before 1950, Church activities were limited to the Levant (Turkey, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria), but since then some have also occurred, temporarily at least, in Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, Lebanon, and the Arab countries of the Gulf.
The history of LDS Church activity in the Middle East dates from 1841, when Orson Hyde, an apostle, prayed on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem for the ingathering of Abraham's children (especially the Jews) to Palestine, for the building up of Jerusalem, and for the rearing of a temple. LDS missionary work in the Middle East began in 1884, when Jacob Spori opened the Turkish Mission in Constantinople. Branches of the Church, consisting mostly of Armenian and European converts, were eventually established in Aintab, Aleppo, and Haifa, but the mission closed in 1896. It reopened in 1897, but closed again in 1909 because of the increasing political turmoil in the Ottoman empire.
After World War I, the mission was reopened in Aleppo and renamed the Armenian Mission. In 1928 it was headquartered in Haifa, but was closed that December with the sudden death of Joseph Booth, the mission president. It reopened in 1933 as the Palestine-Syrian Mission, but was closed again in 1939 because of World War II. In 1947 the mission was reopened with Badwagan Piranian as president; it was renamed the Near East Mission in 1950 but closed again later that year. From 1950 to 1969, Church activity in the Middle East consisted mostly of small groups scattered in various countries and of a few missionaries from the Swiss Mission assigned to work in Lebanon. In September 1969 a Church group was organized in Jerusalem to accommodate Brigham Young University (BYU) faculty and students involved in a Near Eastern Studies program. Other events there included the organization of the Israel District (1977), the dedication of the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden on the Mount of Olives (1979), and the dedication of the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies on Mount Scopus (1989).
The Church has established a few congregations in other Middle Eastern countries since 1950 as economic expansion, related mostly to the oil industry, has brought an influx of Western workers to the area. A branch of the Church has been operating in Cairo, Egypt, since 1974. The Iran Tehran Mission was organized in July 1975, the first formal mission in the Middle East since 1950, but it was closed in December 1978 with the worsening political situation between Iran and the United States. In 1989, Jordan became the first Arab country to grant formal recognition to the Church, allowing it to establish the Center for Cultural and Educational Affairs in Amman. The governments in these countries have allowed the Church, along with other non-Muslim groups, to hold services and other activities as long as they are unobtrusive and their members respect Islamic laws and traditions, including the restriction against proselytizing among the Muslim populace.
ISSUES AND CHALLENGES. The manner in which the Church has handled a number of sensitive issues in the Middle East illustrates its capacity to adapt to local needs and customs. Between 1841 and 1950, the most vexing problem for the missionaries was how to deal with the poverty and poor health of the members. The Church attempted to alleviate the suffering of members by teaching them new skills, organizing cooperatives to market goods in Salt Lake City, soliciting clothing and food donations from members in Utah, and arranging for relocation to Europe, Mexico, and the United States. Since 1950 the Church has adjusted to issues of a cultural and political nature. One example is the First Presidency's decision to allow members to hold Sabbath services, customarily reserved for Sunday, on the day of worship designated by local religious tradition: Friday in Muslim countries and Saturday in Israel. The Church has refrained from taking an official stand on the Arab-Israeli question; rather, the position of Church leaders is best revealed by the manner in which they have quietly sought to cultivate good relations and a reputation for impartiality with both Israelis and Palestinians. The following statement by Elder Howard W. Hunter, an apostle, is characteristic of this attitude: "Both the Jews and the Arabs are children of our Father. They are both children of promise, and as a church we do not take sides. We have love for and an interest in each" (pp. 35-36).
The greatest obstacle to Church growth today is the prohibition against proselytizing that prevails in every country in the Middle East. Despite its reputation for vigorous missionary activity in other areas of the world, the Church has observed religious restrictions in the Middle East by making nonproselytizing commitments to government leaders and by issuing strict instructions for members to honor these commitments.
Baldridge, Steven W. Grafting In: A History of the Latter-day Saints in the Holy Land. Murray, Utah, 1989.
Hunter, Howard W. "All Are Alike Unto God." BYU Speeches of the Year, 1979, pp. 35-36. Provo, Utah.
Lindsay, Rao H. "A History of the Missionary Activities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Near East, 1884-1929." Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1958.
JAMES A. TORONTO