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Research project

Engaging Europe in the Arab World: European missionaries and humanitarianism in the Middle East (1850-1970)

From the mid-19th century until the 1970’s, the Middle East witnessed the presence of various European missionaries who played a fundamental role in the birth and the development of humanitarianism. Since these Christian missionaries were well integrated in the local Middle Eastern societies via their investment in health, they were the favourite intermediaries for foreign diplomats. This project seeks to explore the points of contact between European ‘humanitarian diplomacy’ (praxis and law) and the missionaries.

2015  -   2018
Karène Sanchez
NWO: Internationalisation in the Humanities NWO: Internationalisation in the Humanities


Christian missions and humanitarianism played a foundational role in modern European history and identity that has hitherto not been adequately acknowledged. At the same time, the notion of ‘humanitarianism’ is currently quite popular in political rhetoric and the media, even as a proper reflection on its origins is lacking. This project aims at contributing to a historically grounded understanding of the roots of humanitarianism and its contemporary uses.

The first part of the project will address the evolution of the profile of the missionaries and of their apostolate (rhetoric and ‘praxis’) towards humanitarianism, from the mid- 19th century crises to the 1970’s.

The second part will focus on their active role in humanitarianism during specific Middle Eastern crises.

In the third and final part, relations between missionaries and humanitarianism will be analysed in a wider comparative context via their networks. 



Prof. dr. J. Paulmann (IEG, director, Professor of Contemporary History at the Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz, specialist of Transnational European History and the History of Humanitarianism)

One of the IEG’s groups (Leibniz Institute of European History, specialized in the history of Europe, the limits of this continent and its relations with the Non-European world) is focusing on humanitarian ideas and practices. The group’s members are investigating the multiple aspects of continuity, cooperation but also of conflicts between humanitarian initiatives led by religious, other civil society groups and states. Esther Moeller is working on the history of humanitarian aid in the Arab World in the 20th century and the implication of religious and missionary elements in the movements of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent (funded by the German Research Foundation).

dr. Esther Moeller (DFG project on humanitarianism, Red Cross and Red Crescent); dr. Katharina Stornig (DFG project on the engagement of children in the 19th century missionary movements), dr. Judith Becker (IEG, missionaries and their charitable engagement in India in the 19th century), dr. Fabian Klose (IEG, history of Humanitarian Interventions in the 19th century), dr. Thomas Weller (IEG, antislavery movement in Spain and the Americas in the 19th century) and dr. Mirjam Thulin (IEG, Jewish charity in Europe and beyond from the 17th to the 19th century); dr. Julia Hauser (University of Kassel, German missionaries in Lebanon) and dr. Christian Sassmannshausen (university of Berlin, encounters between missionaries and the local population in Lebanon).


IISMM (French equivalent of the NISIS in the Netherlands). The Institute welcomes a group of researchers specialized in missionaries/ humanitarianism in the Arab world, some of whom obtained research projects financed by the ANR (Agence Nationale de la recherche scientifique), and the IUF (Institut universitaire de France).

dr. Jérôme Bocquet (University of Tours, missionaries in Syria), dr. Philippe Bourmaud (University of Lyon III, medicine, missions in the Ottoman empire), dr. Claire Fredj (University of Paris X Nanterre, missions and philanthropy during the colonial French period), dr. Chantal Verdeil (INALCO/ IUF, missions, philanthropy in Lebanon during the Ottoman and the Mandate periods). The group might also collaborate with the interdisciplinary group GRIEM (Groupe de recherche interdisciplinaire sur les écrits missionnaires).

The Netherlands

Prof. dr. Heleen Murre-van den Berg (IVOC Nijmegen, Christians and missionaries in the Middle East), dr. Karène Sanchez-Summerer (UD at Leiden University, European missionaries in the Levant, European cultural and linguistic policies in the Levant), dr. Umar Ryad (Utrecht University, European-Arab relations in the 20th century, Islamic reformism and Christianity, Muslim polemics on Christianity, history of Christian missions in the modern Muslim World)

Inger M. Okkenhaug (Norway)

Introduction, aims and research plan

‘Mission’ and ‘humanitarianism’ are intimately linked: they both share a vision of engagement with the world, a commitment to moral idealism, and a project of ethical, spiritual betterment. This collaborative project focuses on the interactions between Europe and the Middle East. It enlightens their historical roots by analysing European humanitarianism as witnessed in the transformation of the religious missions of the 19th into both secular and religious humanitarianism of the 20th century. ‘Humanitarianism’ will be understood as ‘covering emergency relief, longer-term efforts to prevent suffering from famine, ill-health, or poverty’ (Paulmann, 2013, 215).

From the early phases of modern missions, Christian missions had supported many humanitarian activities, mostly framed as subservient to the preaching of Christianity. Religiously inspired actions contributed to the foundations of humanitarian law (Geneva Convention, 1864). The missionaries’ humanitarian activities even preceded the intergovernmental humanitarian movement in certain areas.

One of the central activities of this kind of humanitarianism concerned the question of minorities and refugees of the Middle East, producing an expertise relevant until today. The project thus seeks to explore the points of contact between European ‘humanitarian diplomacy’ (Kevonian, 2004) and imperial and globalising vocabularies of humanitarianism with the practices of humanitarian organisations and missionaries.

Christian missions paid more attention to the organisation and bureaucratisation (‘rationalisation’) of their orders, and media became more important to their work. Furthermore, the encounters in the different Arab countries were much more complex than a ‘secular’ Europe meeting a ’religious’ Arab or even Muslim world.

The current project seeks to discover and retrace such ‘entangled histories’ for the first time in an integral perspective.

The three subprojects will bring together various experts from France, Germany and the Netherlands at conferences in these countries, to be published in 2 books and an international proposal.


14-15 April 2016 conference Leiden

January 2017 conference in Paris

Autumn 2017 conference in Mainz

2017-2018 editing 2 volumes
(Leiden+Paris and Mainz conference; published in 2018-2019)

2017-2018 writing a joint international research proposal

Subproject 1: Missionaries and their apostolate

This subproject will put in perspective the ideologies, the rhetoric, and the ‘praxis’ of the missionaries towards humanitarianism, from the mid-19th century crises that comforted the missions in their ‘classical’ definition until the new definitions of the mission that emerged during the 1960s (World Council of Churches, 1961; Vatican Council II, 1962).

The project will analyse the establishment of Catholic and Protestant NGOs, the forms of redeployment of charitable activities towards the ‘Third World’ and therefore the Arab world, their involvement in development projects (a more earthly grounded mission), at a time when European missions experienced difficulties such as the drop in vocations.

Subproject 2: Missionaries’ role in times of crisis

This subproject will focus on the role of crises as turning points of humanitarian history: 1853 (Crimean War), 1860 (Lebanon massacres), 1915 (WWI and Armenians refugees), 1933 (clashes between Iraqi and Assyrian nationalism), 1948 (Palestinian refugees). The investigation will examine how these crises impacted the systematisation from a charity system to ‘humanitarianisation’.

The praxis and the networks of the missionaries will be analysed, focusing on the interactions that played out in the shift from imperial to post-colonial worlds in the periods of crisis mentioned above. The subproject will scrutinise their role during these major crises in terms of actions on the ground but also their actions towards the European public. It will devote special attention to the figure of the refugee.

Subproject 3: Missions as 'best practices' for governmental approaches and non- religious networks?

This subproject will analyse the networks of the missionaries and how missionaries had an impact on the development of humanitarian practices and law, how non- missionaries took over, to a certain extent, the aims and organisations of the missionaries as to humanitarianism.

It will explore the transnational implication of the states on missionaries’ activities; how governments used missionaries’ ideas involved in development projects (mimetism) during the transition from colonial to mandate to postcolonial; and to what extent were the League of Nations and its media linked to the missionaries.

Relevance, added value

From the 19th century onwards, Europe played a pivotal role in the formation of Middle Eastern civil societies. Nevertheless, current political and sociological reflections in the media often completely neglect these historical narratives. This project will constitute an essential correction to this one-sided perspective, highlighting the way in which European and Middle Eastern history are heavily intertwined.

Recent events in the Middle East (the ‘Arab spring’ and subsequent developments) demonstrate the importance of more research into the commitment of European humanitarianism in the Middle East as part of Europe’s engagement in the world and its role in the construction of a global civil society. Understanding how European nations were engaged in the Middle East in the past should serve as a guideline for current and future policy.

The project will allow the partners to continue to preserve endangered archives in cooperation with local scholars. Moreover, the project will respond to the lack of research on the reception of missionaries’ humanitarian engagement in the Arab world as well as their interaction with Islamic charities and humanitarian organisations. By looking at the time frame from the mid-19th century to the 1970’s, the project reveals crucial phases in the relationship between humanitarianism and missions, which help to understand the global religious revival since the 1990’s.

Tracing the entangled history of humanitarianism between Europe and the Middle East, with its grounding in a shared religious history, is also important for European identity building processes (cooperation, coordination and competition between European countries). Rather than a sole focus on the ways in which Europe has developed in opposition to other parts of the world, especially the Middle East, a study of this history shows identity building both in opposition to, and simultaneously, in conjunction with Middle Eastern histories. Religion, however high the tides between Islam and Christianity could rise, also provides common ground, especially so in the debates over humanitarianism.

These forms of interaction have not yet been addressed in a broad interdisciplinary and transnational context. In view of their importance and recent scholarly attention given to non-governmental, essentially Anglo-Saxon humanitarianism, it is surprising that the links between European missionaries and humanitarianism have never been the subject of an interdisciplinary research.

The current project will fill a gap in terms of methodological approaches. Until now, the links between humanitarianism and mission have been analysed with the perspective of a top down paradigm. In contrast, this project will not start from the present state of humanitarianism and go back to their ‘missionary roots’ but trace this history of missionaries from the 19th century until the 1970’.

An important aspect of this project is the attention to the transnational aspect of the birth of humanitarianism, especially by questioning the nation-states as dominant sources of humanitarianism.

As the collaboration gathers experts on European and Arabic histories (both from historical, anthropological and religious backgrounds), all participants will benefit from deeper insights into both regions in order to understand the moments of encounter. Moreover, approaching the questions of modernity, secularism and religion, which are all crucial to the question of humanitarianism, from European and Arab perspectives, will help to realize their complex and multi-layered meaning.

To be discussed in Leiden, spring 2016, Online Database

A database showing the ‘European zenith’ of missionary and humanitarian engagement in the Arab World via the biographies of influential European missionaries, demonstrating primary connections between missionaries and humanitarian activities

Selected bibliography

Abugideiri, Hibba, Gender and the Making of Modern Medicine in Colonial Egypt, Ashgate 2010.

Barnett, Michael, Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism, Ithaca and London 2011.

Barnett, Michael; Stein, Janice Gross, “Introduction”, in: Barnett, Michael; Stein, Janice Gross (eds.), Sacred Aid. Faith and humanitarianism, Oxford 2012, p. 1-38.

Benthall, Jonathan, “Cultural Proximity” and the Conjuncture of Islam with Modern Humanitarianism, in: Barnett, Michael; Janice Stein (eds.), Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism, Oxford 2012, p. 65-89.

Benthall, Jonathan, “The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and islamic societies, with special reference to Jordan”, in: British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 24 (2), 1997, p. 157–177.

Benthall, Jonathan; Bellion-Jourdan, Jérôme, The Charitable Crescent. Politics of Aid in the Muslim World, London 2008.

Bellion-Jourdan, Jérôme, “Le médecin, le militant et le combattant. Figures contemporaines de l’engagement dans la solidarité islamique “, in: Genèses 48, 2003, p. 52-76.

Bouyrat, Yann, Devoir d'intervenir ? L'expédition humanitaire de la France au Liban, 1860, Paris, Vendémiaire, 2013

Brown, Richard D., Wilson, Richard (ed.), Humanitarianism and suffering. The mobilization of empathy through narrative, Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Campos, Michelle Ursula, Ottoman brothers. Muslims, Christians, and Jews in early twentieth-century Palestine, Stanford University Press, 2011.

Cox, Jeffrey, ‘From the Empire of Christ to the Third World. Religion and the Experience of Empire in the Twentieth Century,’ in: Thompson, Andrew (ed.), Britain’s Experience of Empire in the Twentieth Century, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Ener, Mine, Managing Egypt's poor and the politics of benevolence, 1800-1952, Princeton University Press, 2003.

Etherington, Norman, Missions and Empire, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Fieldhouse, D.K., Western Imperialism in the Middle East, 1914-1958, Oxford University Press, 2006.

Fleischmann E, Grypma S., Marten M., Okkenhaug, I.M., Transnational and Historical Perspectives in Global Health, Welfare and Humanitarism, Kristiansand, Portal Books, 2013.

Forsythe, David P., The humanitarians. The International Committee of the Red Cross, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Friedrich, Kaminsky, Löffler, Roland (eds.), The social dimensions of Christian Missions in the Middle East, Historical Studies of the 19th and 20th Centuries, Missionsgeschichtliches Archiv, 16, Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart, 2010.

Gaunt, David, Massacres, Resistance, Protectors: Muslim-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia during World War I, Gorgias Press, 2006.

Geyer, Martin H., Paulmann, Johannes (eds.), The mechanics of internationalism, London: German Historical Institute/Oxford University Press, 2001.

Herren, Madeleine, “Governmental internationalism and the beginning of a new world order in the late nineteenth century”, in: Martin H. Geyer and Johannes Paulmann (eds.), The mechanics of internationalism, London: German Historical Institute/Oxford Univ. Press, 2001, p. 121–144.

Heyberger, Bernard, Les chrétiens du Proche-Orient. De la compassion à la compréhension, Paris: Manuels Payot, 2013.

Heyberger, Bernard et Aurélien Girard, coord, Archives en Sciences sociales des religions 171, dossier ‘Chrétiens au Proche-Orient’, 2015.

Hutchinson, John F., Champions of charity. War and the rise of the Red Cross, Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996.

Iriye, Akira, Global community. The role of international organizations in the making of the contemporary world, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Jacobson, Abigail, From empire to empire. Jerusalem between Ottoman and British rule, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011.

Jones, Heather, “International or transnational? Humanitarian action during the First World War”, in: European Review of History 16 (5), 2009.

Kevonian, Dzovinar, Réfugiés et diplomatie humanitaire : les acteurs européens et la scène proche-orientale pendant l'entre-deux-guerres, Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, 2004, 561 p.

Kieser, Hans-Lukas, American millennialism and Mission to the Middle East, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010.

MacKenzie, David Clark, A world beyond borders. An introduction to the history of international organizations, University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Mahfouz, Naguib Bey, The history of medical education in Egypt, Cairo: Government Press, 1935.

Marten, Michael, Tamcke, Martin (eds.), Christian Witness Between Continuity and New Beginnings: Modern historical missions in the Middle East, Studien zur Orientaalischen Kirchengeschichte, vol 39, Hamburg: LIT Verlag, 2006.

Möller, Esther, ‚Humanitarismus ohne Grenzen? Die Rotkreuz- und Rothalbmondbewegung und der Palästinakonflikt 1948/1949“, in: Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 1/2, 2015, 61-77 (Special Issue on Human Rights and Humanitarianism).

Murre-van den Berg, Heleen, New Faith in Ancient Lands, New Faith in Ancient Lands: Western Missions in the Middle East in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (Studies in Christian Mission), Brill, 2006.

Murre-van den Berg, Heleen, “Nineteenth century Protestant Missions and Middle Estern Women: An Overview”, in Okkenhaug, Inger Marie, Flaskerud, Iingvild (eds), Gender, Religion and Change in the middle East. Two Hundred years of History, Oxford/New York, 2005, 103-122.

Naguib, Nefissa, Okkenhaug, Inger Marie (eds.), Interpreting relief and welfare activities in the Middle East. 1800-2005- Welfare and Modernity in the Middle East, Leiden, Brill, 2008.

Okkenhaug, Inge Marie,‘Introduction. Nordic mission, gender and humanitarian practices:  from evangelizing to development’, Scandinavian Journal of History, 40, 3, 2015, 285-297.

Okkenhaug, Inge Marie, ‘Religion, relief and humanitarian work among Armenian women refugees in Mandatory Syria, 1927-1934’, Scandinavian Journal of History, 40, 3, 2015, 432-454.

Özaydin, Zuhal, “The Egyptian Red Crescent Society's aid to the Ottoman state during the Balkan War in 1912”, in: Journal of the International Society for the History of Islamic Medicine 2 (3), 2003, p. 18–21.

Paulmann, Johannes, “Conjunctures in the History of International Humanitarian Aid during the Twentieth Century”, in: Humanity 4 (2), 2013, 215-238.

Perry, Yaron, British Missions to the Jews in XIXth century Palestine, Routledge, 2003.

Ryad, Umar, “A Muslim response to missionary activities in Egypt. With a special reference to the Al-Azhar High Corps of ‘Ulamâ’ (1925-1935)”, in: Murre-van den Berg, Heleen (ed.), New faith in ancient lands. Western missions in the Middle East in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2006, p. 281–307.

Sharkey, Heather J., American evangelicals in Egypt. Missionary encounters in an age of empire, Princeton University Press, 2008.

Sharkey, Heather J., Cultural Conversions: Unexpected Consequences of Christian Missions in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, Syracuse University Press, 2013.

Singer, Amy, Charity in Islamic Societies, Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Taithe, Bertrand, Pyrrhic Victories? French Catholic Missionaries, Modern Expertise and Secularizing Technologies, in: Barnett/Stein, Sacred Aid. Faith and humanitarianism, Oxford 2012, p. 166-182.

Tejirian, E and Spector Simon, R, Conflict, Conquest and Conversion, 2000 years of Christian Missions in the Middle East, Columbia University Press, 2012.

Verdeil, Chantal, “Between Rome and France, Intransigent and anti protestant Jesuits in the Orient: the beginnings of the Jesuits’ Mission of Syria, 1831-1864”, in: Marten, Michael, Tamcke, Martin (eds.), Christian Witness Between Continuity and New Beginnings: Modern historical missions in the Middle East, Studien zur Orientaalischen Kirchengeschichte, vol 39, Hamburg: LIT Verlag, 2006, 23-32.

Watenpaugh, Keith David, “The League of Nations' rescue of Armenian genocide survivors and the making of modern humanitarianism, 1920–1927”, in: The American Historical.

Watenpaugh, Keith David, Bread from stones, The Middle East and the making of Modern Humanitarianism, University of California Press, 2015.


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