Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Islam in 19th Century Palestine

When Swiss-born Samuel Gobat became the de-facto Anglican bishop of Palestine in the 1846, he quickly identified Greek Christians, rather than Jews or Muslims, and the most likely converts to the Anglican faith. Unlike their Muslim neighbors, who enjoyed relatively open access to the Quran and to other Islamic scriptures, Orthodox Arabs complained to Anglicans that the former’s hierarchs kept them in ignorance. Gobat—a known supporter of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England—saw an opportunity to win converts to the Protestant and Anglican cause through the simple means of providing Arab-language Bibles.

Gobat moved quickly, and brought nearly 400 Arab Christians into the Anglican fold. This enraged the Orthodox hierarchy in Palestine. The Greek Orthodox enjoyed the protection and sanction of the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople in the aftermath of the successful Greek War for Independence between 1821 and 1829. In order to stave off further revolts by Greeks who lived in Ottoman territories the Sultan granted the Orthodox hierarchy rights reserved to Muslims. Conversions from the Greek faith were forbidden, which resulted in the Greeks being more pliable and submissive than Roman Catholics or Protestants when it came to upholding the Ottoman order in the Near East. Gobat, however, pursued conversions with little regard for Greek, Islamic, or even high church Anglican opinion. High churchmen disliked the formation of what they believed was a syncretic Anglo-Prussian bishopric to begin with, and they objected to Gobat seeking converts from a Christian body they believed had valid episcopal orders.

Opposition did not deter Gobat. “He quietly bought a house, which he arranged as a school for boys and girls, with quarters for the teachers in it. As soon as this became known in Nablus, the storm broke.” Prominent Arab Protestants “were thrown into prison and condemned to death, and Bishop Gobat rescued them only with difficulty.” Interestingly, it was the intervention of the Ottoman governor, a Turkish muslim, that kept Protestant converts from more serious criminal and civil penalties. Still, Gobat’s rush for converts hurt his long-term influence with Orthodox Arabs who might have been interested in Anglicanism but worried if conversion—not to a different religion, but to a different Christian body—was worth the steep civil and social consequences. Gobat’s Bible school, however, “flourished, and its teacher proved himself to be a steadfast man, on whom reliance could be placed.” Greek Orthodox Christians reacted more violently than local Muslim leaders, and “resorted to all manner of intrigue; they established opposition schools and searched the houses for Bibles, burning all they could discover, and fining the people who had possessed them.” Greek bishops eventually resorted to excommunicating anyone who attended Gobat’s bible school. “But the people would not give way, nor could Bishop Gobat retire; he therefore decided to collect the excommunicated into a Protestant congregation.”

Creation of an Arab congregation achieved one of Gobat’s goals but made long-term viability of Greek-Protestant conversions more tenuous. Although British bishops blustered about Gobat’s methods of seeking converts from the Orthodox, they eventually sustained his policy. But “the rupture in the Greek Church caused by the formation of Protestant congregations, on the one hand, and the long-continued hostility of Anglicans, on the other, had the result of bringing the entire hopeful movement to a standstill.” Arab Orthodox who had already converted “remained for the most part faithful, but conversions became year by year less frequent.”[1]

[1] Julius Richter, A History of Protestant Missions in the Near East (New York, Chicago, and Toronto: The Fleming H. Revell Co., 1910), 240-41.


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