World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th – 24th 2010


CHRISTIANS IN THE MIDDLE EAST - 1/3: Christian Life in Wider Contexts (306) - NOT_DEFINED activity_field_Panel

· NOT_DEFINED date: THU 22, 9.00-11.00 am

· NOT_DEFINED institution: University of Stirling (Scotland)

· NOT_DEFINED organizer: Dr. Michael Marten

· NOT_DEFINED language: English

· NOT_DEFINED description: The history and contemporary contexts of Christian communities in the Middle East over the last 200 years are emblematic of the balance between continuity and change faced by many within the region and throughout the world. Balancing tradition and modernity – in relation to liturgical practice, social and political engagement, missionary involvement, internal coherence, co-operation/conflict with other traditions and so on – are all topics of specific concern for these communities. We want to use our panels to explore the diversity of Christian communities in the Middle East, both historically and presently, through investigating the different responses to/engagements with change that these different communities represent.

In the same way that the concept of ‘the Middle East’ itself transcends strict definitions. We have created 3 panels from the submissions we have received, of which this is the first. The other two are entitled ‘Political and social negotiations of spaces’ (2) and ‘Middle Eastern Christians in a globalised world’ (3).

Chair: Dr. Fiona McCallum (University of St Andrews)

Paper presenter: Prof. Willy Jansen (Radboud University), “Demanding a religious place. Three female Christian visionaries in the Middle East”
Recently, some scholars have attempted to bring to light the forgotten and neglected history of religious women in the Middle East (e.g. Heyberger 2001, 2005, Khater 2005, 2008, Lindner 2009, Jansen 2005, Matar 2005, Zayek 1980). For this paper I will review this literature and compare the life stories of three female mystics in order to understand whether and how these women challenged the contemporary religious hierarchy, the authorities and the gender structures by demanding a space for women using a visionary discourse. Both the particularities and the commonalities of the three lives will be analyzed, in particular how they created place for women by the foundation or strengthening of religious orders. The mystics discussed are the Roman Catholic Sister Marie-Alphonsine (1843-1927), who after visions of Mary telling her to do so founded the Congregation of the Sisters of the Rosary in Jerusalem, and the Maronite Hindiyya `Ujaimi (1720-1798) who during episodes of ecstasy communicated directly with Christ, was blessed with his stigmata and felt called to form the Order of the Sacred Heart on Mount Lebanon. The third woman is Boutrosiya Shabaq al-Rayes (1832-1914), better known as Saint Rafqa. Also the latter asserted her autonomy by refusing to marry and followed a vision when making her choice for a new order to join. Compared to the first two, however, she deviated less from the common track. And rather than forgotten or defiled, she was canonized on the basis of her feminine trait of accepting extreme suffering for the glory of God. At present, she even has been given her own website ( It is argued that their life histories show a remarkable agency of women in the religious domain, including a strategic use of religious connections --also across denominational lines-- and of mystic experiences to redefine their gender, national and religious identities.

Paper presenter: Dr. Christine Lindner (University of Balamand), “An Uncommonly Worthy Girl”: Exploring the Life and Influence of Rahil Ata al-Bustani”
Rahil Ata al-Bustani was a central figure in the early Protestant Church of Ottoman Syria. She was the wife of Butrus al-Bustani and mother of Selim and Alice al-Bustani; all of whom are famous figures in the Nahda of the nineteenth century. Although born into a Greek Orthodox family, Rahil was adopted by the American missionary, Sarah Smith, and spent the rest of her life within this international Protestant community. Through teaching, translating and mothering, Rahil embodied the ideals of mid-nineteenth century Protestant womanhood in Ottoman Syria.
My paper consists of two parts. The first section reviews the biography of Rahil. Despite the significance of this woman, as a central member of the Protestant Church and as the wife/mother of the Bustani family, her history is often overlooked (or wrongly identified) in recent works on the history of Protestantism in Syria. My aim is to re-introduce Rahil to present day scholars and outline the various activities she performed during the early years of this community.
The second section of my paper examines the discoursive role ‘Rahil’ played in defining Protestant/womanhood during the mid to late nineteenth century. In contrast to the recent lack of interest on the historical person, the representational figure of ‘Rahil’ served as a central figure in, or reference for, various travel guides and accounts written by Americans to Ottoman Syria as well as educational and religious treatises by contemporary Syrians, including pieces by Butrus and Selim al-Bustani during the mid to late nineteenth century. I will examine how these different portrayals of ‘Rahil’ reflect, not her own historical path and definition of self, but the gendered and racialised discourses on Protestant womanhood advocated by male authors during this period.

Paper presenter: Dr. Michael Marten, University of Stirling (University of Stirling), “The negotiation of competing modernities: reading ‘western’ and ‘Zionist’ ideologies in gendered Palestinian spaces”
Developing concepts of competing modernities the paper will use questions of gender in early 20th century Palestine, as they emanated from Scottish missionary endeavour on the one hand, and Zionism on the other, to point to the need for rehistoricising aspects of western involvement, especially on the part of missionaries, in Mandate Palestine.
Scottish missionaries, seeking ultimately to convert the local population, especially Jews, created a number of institutions that reflected their interests and were intended as tools for conversion; schools and medical facilities are the primary factors to be considered here. They sought to develop these in ways that would appeal to the local population groupings, serving their needs, and hoping that they would also want to take steps towards conversion. This last step tended not to happen, but the institutions were nonetheless successful in terms of service reach in their localities. In particular, attempts to reach girls and women became increasingly important over time, and ideas of girlhood and womanhood were promoted that originated in Scottish/British understandings of the time.
This activity took place against the ever-increasing impact of Zionism on local Palestinian history. The growth of Jewish settlements, agricultural and urban, the creation of schools and facilities designed for Jews, led to the well-documented creation of ‘parallel’ state institutions for Jews. In these contexts, significantly different understanding of gender norms was offered to girls and women to the ones being portrayed by the Scots.
The ultimate failure of the Scottish missionary understanding of modernity in relating to Jews when in competition with the Zionist modernity on offer across the country will therefore be analysed and elucidated, with particular attention being paid to questions of gender norms and values and the significant changes that resulted in the marginalisation of Scottish norms and values.