Middle East Resources

Reflections of Shirley Winnifred Madany

On The State of Christianity in the Middle East

1953 – 1994

Prologue by Bassam Michael Madany

My late wife Shirley (1924 -2008) was born in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada. Her parents, Roland and Nellie Dann had immigrated from Kent and Sussex, England. Roland George Dann’s family grew fruits and vegetables at Battle, Sussex for the London markets.

During WWII, two large airports near Portage served as training centers for airmen from the British Commonwealth. Her brother Roland joined the RCAF and served in England flying missions in the North Sea hunting for German submarines. At 24, he was hit by a Messerschmitt airplane; and was killed as he crash-landed at the airport. After the war, Shirley left for Winnipeg, and worked as secretary to the editor of The Winnipeg Free Press.

In August 1950, I came to United States to study at a Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the end of the academic year in mid-May 1951, I served a Presbyterian congregation in Winnipeg. I met Shirley at a meeting in an independent church.

In the summer of 1952, I served at the same church, and before returning to Pittsburgh for my senior year, we got engaged. We were married a year later and took off for a life of church work in Syria.

From this point on, I quote Shirley’s reflections on our life together, first in Syria, then back to Canada, until we and our growing family settled in South Holland, a farming community in the southern suburbs of Chicago, Illinois.

Part One

I have been glancing at a box of letters written by both of us to my parents in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada. They tell about the long journey to Syria, and the ordering of simple furniture to be made by a carpenter for our small-rented house. They are the first impressions of a bride in a new country! In 1953 Latakia was definitely not the modern seaport which it is now.

Once there, we soon saw that our days in Latakia would be limited. The mission school where Bassam was asked to teach, would soon be nationalized. Syria was about to close its doors to any kind of mission work. The country was in ferment and there were constant “coups” which usually closed the schools.

As we walked to school, where I tried my hand at teaching as well, the sight of soldiers at the street corners early in the morning would be a signal that we would soon be sent home again. No school that day.

Our first son was born at home with an Armenian midwife who could speak French, Arabic and Armenian, but not English! He arrived early on a Friday morning, the Muslim holy day, when radios turned up full blast would be bringing sermons from mosques in Damascus, and Cairo.

We look back now, at those days of waiting, from the vantage point of more than 50 years and marvel at the unbroken length of years as a daily broadcaster in the Arabic language which were to follow.

Years of fruitful contact with the Muslim world through that daily radio ministry have never ceased. In fact, with the Internet, it is possible to make our materials available around the world. An Arabic-language website, www.arabicbible.com was created by a keen Lebanese Christian, now contains most of our published Arabic material, thanks to his vision and determination. Our own website, “Middle East Resources” is directed towards educating people about the global challenge of Islam. www.unashamedofthegospel.org

But that is another story. In 1953, Latakia, Syria’s only seaport was still very backward and very, very Muslim. This is the province from which Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad had come.

I soon found myself exclaiming over the sad state of affairs in the country. Christians were told that they could worship and gather together, but they were not allowed to propagate their faith. I felt that these restrictions were impossible to bear. This was not what I called tolerance. I could not see how a Christian could survive under such conditions. When the apostles Peter and John were told not to do anything more in the name of Jesus, their instant reaction was, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4: 19, 20).

It shocked me that I was living in a country where it was considered a crime to talk about the Savior to a friend or neighbor if they happened to be Muslim. Years and years of persecution have shaped the nature of the Eastern Christian. Every family has its sad story. They have learned to live within the law of the land, but it has exacted a visible price—the stifling of the spirit. Obedience to the Great Commission is a part of a normal Christian life. We may be guilty of omission when it comes to personal obedience here in the West, but at least we know we have all the freedom in the world.

I have discovered these same sentiments in an important book entitled “CHRISTIANS IN THE ARAB EAST” (1978), by Robert Brenton Betts.i  The author has done a thorough study of the various Christian groups in the Middle East who now number around 14 million persons. (This number has changed drastically with the increased flight of Christians to the Western world. One marvels that Christians have survived at all for so many centuries.) The following quote applied well to my brief stay in Syria:

“By the middle of the 8th century the Christian communities and their leaders had come to recognize that the official Muslim toleration which had seemed so attractive a century earlier was in fact a rigid prison from which there was no escape other than apostasy or flight….the dhimmi system, while allowing the Heterodox Christians to keep their religion, churches and property, and to live according to the canon law of their particular sect, condemned them in effect to a slow but almost inevitable decline and death. They were not allowed to build new churches, and as succeeding caliphs became less tolerant, many of their old churches were appropriated by the state and made into mosques, the most famous example being the conversion of the Basilica of Saint John the Baptist in Damascus to the present-day Umayyad Mosque during the reign of Calip Al-Walid. All Christians were prevented from seeking new members from among even the non-Muslims of Dar Al-Islam (that territory under Muslim rulership), and apostasy from Islam was punishable by death.” P.10

Is it surprising then that Eastern Christians made so little effort to bring the Gospel to their neighbors, the Muslims? They have breathed an atmosphere which permits them only a kind of ghostly half-life as Christians. They had to be content with internal growth. Some groups, such as the Nestorians of Iraq, did find a spiritual release for a while by engaging in extensive missionary work eastward throughout India and as far as China.

But at home, the grip of Islam never weakened. In fact, it has become even stronger. There are various kinds of suffering and diverse kinds of persecution. Eastern Christians have known harsh physical persecution as well as the subtle soul-destroying kind. They deserve our sympathetic understanding and our prayers.

To illustrate I would like to share another passage from the Betts’ book:

“The First World War was for the Christians of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia a purgatory from which they emerged broken and decimated, a tragic chapter in their history of suffering which today, more than fifty years later, remains an omnipresent memory even to those born long afterward….An estimated 100,000 Jacobites and Syrian Catholics are known to have perished from privation and massacre….During (the war) an estimated 100,000 Lebanese, virtually all of them Christian (largely Maronite) died of disease, starvation, and execution….almost 25% of the total population of that populous region of Mount Lebanon. The incalculable suffering which the Christians of Syria and Mesopotamia had endured at Turkish hands during the War caused many among them, heretofore sympathetic to the aims of nascent Arab Nationalism, to question their future under any Muslim administration.” Pp. 28,29

Foreigners, transient on the scene and always having a ready “escape hatch,” have tended to criticize the indigenous Christians of the Middle East. The great achievements of the missionary enterprise were realized only when the Muslim countries were at their weakest. But times have changed. Islam has revived and Western Christians are finding themselves unable to go openly to countries like Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Syria, to name just a few. Missionary work has had to develop along different lines and with other strategies. My husband was one of those Eastern Christians. His roots go back to a Christianity that had existed long before Islam. He felt called to bring the Gospel to his neighbors in what the late Samuel Zwemer called “The Glory of the Impossible.” Step by step God led us to our radio ministry.

Our first Arabic publication, put together while we were living like refugees in my native Canada, was placed in the hands of the Sudan Interior Mission. It had been typed on an Arabic typewriter and dealt with “The Inspiration of the Holy Bible.” This book led to the opening of a door for broadcasting the Gospel in Arabic over the SIM missionary station, ELWA, in Monrovia, Liberia. The work was sponsored the Back-to-God Hour, an agency of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

Surely God opened up doors beyond our highest expectations. This was seen by the quality and quantity of mail received over 36 years of broadcasting. And now we see the possibility of re-using all those messages when they are placed on the Internet. Having used an expository method of preaching the Gospel, they remain relevant. God has given us this new means of propagating the Gospel.

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iChristians in the Arab East, in its second edition, is a comprehensive study of the varying roles which Arabic speaking Christians have played in Islamic society since the Muslim conquests, and in the states of the Arab East since independence. Except for Lebanon where they are an official majority and where they continue to dominate many areas of society and government, these Christian communities are a minority conspicuous for their affluence, education, and Western orientation, whose influence in the contemporary Middle East greatly exceeds their numerical strength. Detailed demographic statistics, many made available here for the first time in English, the power structure and political involvement of the various churches, Christian participation in the Palestinian nationalist movement and Lebanon in the immediate aftermath of the 1975-76 civil disturbances - all are examined in the light of the growing importance of the Middle East in world affairs.

John Knox Press; Revised Edition (January 1, 1978) 100 Witherspoon St, Louisville, KY 40202