Jesuit Historiography Online

The Jesuits and the Middle East from the Nineteenth Century to the Present Day: A Historiographical Essay
(6,896 words)

Chantal Verdeil
[email protected]

Last modified: February 2018


The Near East province of the Society of Jesus comprises over 130 members spread across seven countries in the region: Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Israel/Palestine, and, since 2013, Morocco and Algeria.1 The Society has also been involved in Jordan and Iraq through the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) network, which is active in Amman as well as in Erbil and Ankawa in northern Iraq. The Jordan residence is affiliated to the New England province in the United States, which is considering reopening a residence in Iraq.2 This geographical presence is the result of a unique history that I will briefly outline here in order to better highlight the factors that have influenced the way it has been recorded.

The Jesuit presence in the Middle East is linked to their missionary apostolate during the nineteenth century. The mission in Syria was one of the first missions undertaken by the “restored” Society; it began in 1831, when three Jesuits—Paul-Marie Riccadonna (1799–1863) and Benoît Planchet (1802–59), accompanied by Brother Henri Henze (1794–1848)—sailed for Syria. They were following in the footsteps of other Jesuits who had been sent to the Aegean Islands or the United States, and preceding those who, in later years, would go to the Indies (1834), Madurai (1837), and Algeria (1838). The Syrian and Algerian missions were quickly assigned to the Lyon province; even though recruitment remained international, the vast majority of the missions’ members were French. The Syrian mission started in Mount Lebanon before expanding into inner Syria and the coast, into Egypt, and among the Armenians of Anatolia. The mission’s most important accomplishment is unquestionably Saint Joseph University, founded in Beirut in 1875, which was one of the few universities in the Middle East and today remains a prestigious institution and a bastion of France’s francophonie policy.3 In 1936, the Syrian, Egyptian, and Armenian missions became the Middle East mission, which was elevated to the status of vice-province in 1939 (still affiliated to the Lyon province), and then, in 1957, to that of an independent province.4 In 1932, US Jesuits settled in Iraq, where they opened a college and then a university. When the US Jesuits were expelled at the end of the 1960s, some of them moved to Jordan. This threefold origin (Syrian/Armenian/Egyptian mission, Algerian mission, Iraqi mission) has left its mark on the current organization of the Middle Eastern Jesuits in the Middle East province on the one hand and the Jordanian and Iraqi posts on the other.

It is also reflected in the writing of their history. Studying the Jesuits of the Middle East in the period spanning the nineteenth century up until the Second World War means studying the history of the Catholic missions closely linked to France—its government as well as its church—and then to the Middle Eastern states founded after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which initially fell under European domination before gaining independence. The Society bears the scars of the region’s troubled history: several of its members died during the sectarian clashes in Mount Lebanon in 1860, the Armenian mission disappeared following the Armenian genocide, the Jesuits of Baghdad were expelled in 1969, and, in the 1990s, the Jesuits left Algeria where they were no longer safe.

This is a history written first and foremost by Jesuits and by French-language authors, a virtual monopoly explained by the fact that most of the sources are in French and are sometimes difficult to access. Scholarly investigation is inextricably bound up with the region’s political history and, to a lesser extent, with its religious and cultural history. Religious history here refers to the history of the Oriental churches, since the relations between the Jesuits and Islam have until recently received little attention, whether from historians or from the Jesuits themselves.

A History of the Society in the Middle East: A Jesuit and French Monopoly?

Thus most of those who have written about the history of the Society in the Middle East are Jesuits themselves. As early as 1856, Father Louis Abougit (1819–95) took advantage of the time afforded by his third year of formation in Rome to compile documents on the mission’s beginnings. On his return to Beirut, he approached fellow members of the Society for further information, which he recorded in a notebook in the late 1880s. Unfortunately, the outcome of this research, “La nouvelle mission de la Compagnie de Jésus en Syrie, appendice aux lettres édifiantes et curieuses du Levant” (The new mission of the Society of Jesus in Syria: An appendix to edifying and interesting letters of the Levant), was never finished, and the work remains unpublished. However, his successors would later draw on it in their own studies, including Father Michel Jullien (1827–1911), who wrote La nouvelle mission de la Compagnie de Jésus en Syrie (The new mission of the Society of Jesus in Syria [1831–95]), an essential reference work that was supplemented by a separate volume entitled “Confidential Notes,” which “must not under any circumstances be shared with people outside the Society.”5 Consisting of two volumes (before and after 1860), the work recounts the history of the mission and its expansion through the establishment of its various institutions (schools, universities, seminaries, printing house, village missions). As suggested by its title, “the new mission [...],” the work treats the activities of the nineteenth-century Jesuits as part of the works of the “previous” Society. Despite its hagiographic tone, it remains irreplaceable to this day thanks to Jullien’s intimate knowledge of the subject, having himself worked as a missionary in Syria and then Egypt.6 Today, both this work and Abougit’s history serve as important primary sources. Under the French mandate in Syria and Lebanon, further work was carried out on the mission’s history by Fathers Gabriel Lévenq (1868–1938) and Henri Charles (1900–78), and especially by Father Louis Jalabert (1877–1943). The latter, an unofficial representative of all Jesuit missions to the French Foreign Office, celebrated the mission’s first centenary by publishing several articles in Catholic and Jesuit reviews.7 Written for a wider audience, the articles sought to gain the support of French Jesuits and Catholics more generally for the Society’s work in Syria and Lebanon.

After the Second World War, there emerged a sort of tradition whereby the Jesuit archivists began publishing works drawing on the documents in their care. The first of these archivists, Father Henri Jalabert (1913–99), a nephew of Louis Jalabert, published a description of the works of the new province (1957), followed by biographical notes on the Jesuits of the Middle East.8 His successor as head of archives, Father Sami Kuri, a former provincial, edited a range of documents on the former Society’s mission and compiled correspondence and diary extracts in his Histoire du Liban à travers les archives des jésuites (A history of Lebanon based on Jesuit archives).9 Despite its title, this work is more a collection of documents from the Society’s archives than an actual history as such, and its subject is not so much Lebanon as the Society and its mission in “Syria,” to employ the terminology of the time (it was in fact a territory that would today fall within Lebanon). Although published with an index and invaluable notes, his work is sometimes difficult to use, as Kuri selected documents without defining his selection criteria and without identifying extracts or the reasons why they had been selected. A comparison of the published documents and the archives shows that he often chose to gloss over the squabbles between the mission’s members. He also omitted several anti-Protestant and anti-Muslim passages. Despite these gray areas, his work is still essential for anyone who wants to know more about the history of the “new mission in Syria.” His successor as head of the archives, Father Charles Libois, built on Jalabert’s work by publishing the biographical notes of the priests who died after 1986,10 followed by notes on the centers founded and/or inhabited by the Society of Jesus in the Middle East since the sixteenth century. As a Dutch national, Libois conveyed less of a “French” and Lebanese image of the Jesuit presence in the Middle East than some of his predecessors. Instead, he emphasized the links with the Netherlands and did justice to the American Jesuits, who were very active in Iraq as well as in Jordan and Lebanon.11

In addition to these general writings, the Jesuits published works celebrating their accomplishments or paying tribute to particular priests. Many of the earlier texts were published to mark an anniversary in order to highlight the longevity of the Jesuit presence in the Middle East and to justify the legitimacy of their actions.12 In 1990, Jean Ducruet, rector of Saint Joseph University, published “golden books” (livres d’or) on several faculties, which he describes as a breeding ground for the Lebanese elite.13 Brutally interrupted by the First World War, the mission in Armenia has received little scholarly attention and has mainly been discussed in short pamphlets.14 As for the priests honored first by the mission and later by the province, most are important superiors or “martyrs,” such as the Jesuits killed by the Druze in 1860, or Father André Masse (1940–87), who was murdered in his office in Saida in 1987.15 When not writing themselves, the Jesuits worked with academics or writers, as is the case with the works by Carla Eddé on Saint Joseph University, by Lévon Nordiguian on Father Joseph Delore ’s (1873–1944) small schools, and by Carole Dagher on Father Nicolas Kluiters (1940–85), who was savagely murdered during the Lebanese War (1975–90).16

In parallel with this prolific Jesuit output, there have also been academic works written about the mission or certain aspects of its history, such as its initial years, the mission’s leading figures, its educational institutions, or its apostolate in various parts of the Middle East, Eastern Anatolia, Egypt, Iraq, or Syria (in particular in the Alawi Mountains [le Jabal Alaouite]).17 In the Maghreb, scholarly research has mainly focused on the initial years of the Algerian mission.18 However, these more recent works remain outliers in a field largely dominated by Jesuit authors. Researchers have sometimes come up against real obstacles, especially because of difficulties in accessing sources.

Scattered and Not Always Accessible Sources

There are several types of source that provide material for works on the Society’s history in the Middle East. The first of these is the Society’s Roman archives (Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu [ARSI]), which mainly contain correspondence between mission and province superiors and the superior general or his assistants. These letters are arranged according to geographical origin. They include letters written by the superior general or his assistant (socius), as well as letters written by missionaries, which are classified according to their region of origin (Egypt, Syria, Armenia, Algeria, and so on) and then by “residences” (Beirut, Cairo, Algiers etc.). The correspondence between Rome and the province of Lyon, which was in charge of the Middle East missions, is also useful. The catalogs, which list the Jesuits present in the different provinces of the Society on a year-by-year basis, have been digitized and are available online for the period from 1774 to 1914.19 The ARSI also contains personal files, including biographical documents on individual Jesuits.

The second source is the Society’s French archives, which are now held in Vanves, in the suburbs of Paris. Theses archives are extremely useful, since most of the Middle Eastern missions (Syria, Egypt, Armenia), as well as the Algerian mission, were affiliated to the Lyon province, either from the beginning of the mission, or, in the case of the oldest ones, a few years after they were established. The French archives mainly consist of correspondence between the mission’s priests and the provincial of Lyon—correspondence that was collated and sometimes censored by one Father Prat20 (who gave his name to this archive collection)—but they also contain a wide variety of other documents, such as press cuttings, maps, Jesuits’ personal files, photographs, and so on. My own research, for example, has uncovered large numbers of invitations to theatrical performances staged by the students of Saint Joseph University at the end of the Ottoman period.21 The local collections held in Cairo or Beirut are even more diverse. As well as correspondence, they contain a large number of documents that shed light on the Jesuits’ day-to-day lives (diaries, consultations), but they are not always accessible or properly cataloged. As for the “American” part of this history, researchers would need to consult the collections now held in Boston or in Beirut, where several Jesuits found refuge after the expulsion. In addition to these Jesuit archives, there are also diplomatic archives, especially the French diplomatic archives. Held in Paris and Nantes, these archives contain a multitude of documents relating to the presence and activities of the Jesuits, who received diplomatic and financial support from the French government. The archives of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith and of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches in Rome also hold documents on the Jesuits’ apostolate in the Middle East, and particularly their relations with the Oriental churches.

Most of these documents are in French; the remainder are in Arabic, Italian, or Latin. This largely explains the predominance of the French language or French-speaking researchers in this field. Another reason for the predominance of French-language research is the division that has emerged in missionary studies between English-speaking scholars and French-speaking scholars. Whereas the former have mainly been interested in the American or English Protestant missions, the latter have tended to focus on the Catholic missions. This gap is now beginning to narrow, with an increasing number of studies that explore the different networks from a comparative perspective.22

That the sources are scattered across several continents, and the difficulties that are sometimes involved in trying to access them, explains the near monopoly of the Jesuits on the recording of their Middle Eastern history. This goes hand-in-hand with the Society’s desire—well embedded in its rules and history—to know its past in order to keep faith with it. It is also a way of developing, imposing, and maintaining an esprit de corps among the order’s members. This monopoly has been further reinforced in the case of the most recent period due to the closure of the Society’s post-1939 Roman archives. The rules are less strict in the other archive collections, but researchers are still subject to the decisions of individual archivists or their superiors. The number and variety of Jesuit writings also betrays the desire of the Society of Jesus in the Middle East to retain control over what is written about it. To some extent, this reflects a certain mistrust of academic studies, which are less apologetic in their viewpoints and objectives than most of those produced by members of the Society. The reluctance also stems from the Society’s fear of documents being taken out of context and used to undermine the Jesuits’ current activities (notably the less-than-charitable attitudes to Muslims prevalent in the nineteenth century). The tensions and violence that still prevail in the Middle East oblige the Jesuits to exercise caution in this regard.23 This is not the place to discuss that policy, except to say that it sounds inimical to the aims of scholarly research. One example of this is a book about Father Kluiters, who was savagely murdered in the Beqaa Valley during the Lebanese War, which says nothing about the killers or about the drug-trafficking that was part of the background to his life in that region. While the book was published to honor Kluiters’s memory, and though the Society’s desire to avoid reviving old tensions is perfectly understandable, the book would have benefited from more detailed information.

Most of the Jesuit writings are based on their authors’ personal knowledge of their subject or on documents in the local archives. They are consequently embedded in a local geographical context, either circumscribed by the Society’s presence (the mission in Syria, then in Syria, Armenia, and Egypt, or in Algeria) or by the carving up of nation states following the First World War (Lebanon, Iraq, Syria). As already mentioned, these works were usually produced for commemorative or hagiographic purposes, and they tend to gloss over any hesitancies, difficulties, or failures, as well as any criticisms that may have been leveled at the Jesuits; they also fail to place the Society’s works in a wider missionary, ecclesial, cultural, and political context. Seldom written by historians, these works rarely refer to new developments in historical scholarship, such as approaches informed by global history, connected histories, gender history, or microhistory. Nevertheless, this is not to say that they are completely devoid of historical value, particularly when reinforced or qualified by the academic studies that have been produced since the 1990s.

French Imperialism, Latinization, Education, and the Arab “Renaissance”

Although scattered, the writings on the history of the Jesuit presence in the Middle East allow us to sketch a general outline of its chronology. This history is one in which the fortunes of the Jesuits have ebbed and flowed over time. In the nineteenth century, the mission initially grew gradually before expanding considerably after 1880: from Mount Lebanon, where the first residences were established, the Society spread toward the coast (Beirut, Saida) and later into inner Syria (Damascus, Aleppo, etc.); it then ventured farther afield into Egypt and among the Armenians of Eastern Anatolia. The ebb started with the First World War, which saw the closure of nearly all the Anatolian residences. It continued for the whole of the twentieth century, despite the establishment of new centers such as the US college in Baghdad (1932), and in new Syrian regions (Alawi Mountain, Palmyra), almost as though the forced exit from Anatolia had prompted a redeployment into the Arab world. This ebb further intensified in the 1960s as several states (Syria, Egypt, Iraq) pursued a policy of nationalizing educational institutions. Since the 1970s, the Society has struggled to keep all of its centers open. However, the decline has not been a sudden one, as was the case during the First World War, but a slow erosion that has sometimes taken the form of redeployment: new posts have been set up in areas neglected or long abandoned by the Society, including Amman (1970) and Ankara (2000). In over a century, the forms taken by the apostolate have changed profoundly. Today, plenty of energy still goes into education, but the refugee aid driven by the dynamism of the Jesuit Refugee Service (created by Superior General Pedro Arrupe [1907–91, in office 1965–83] in 1980), has mobilized large numbers of priests in a region all too familiar with the phenomena of migration and forced population displacement.24

Some aspects of this almost two-century-long history are better known. For French and French-speaking historians, two questions in particular have aroused scholarly interest: the role of the Society as a spearhead of France on the one hand and of the Holy See on the other. Researchers examining the first of these have focused on the Jesuits’ involvement in the policy pursued by France in the Middle East at the end of Ottoman period. With its network of schools, crowned by a prestigious university (Saint Joseph University, founded in 1875), whose main faculty (the medical faculty, opened in 1883) was generously funded by France, the mission of the Society in Syria appeared to be to act as one of the main vehicles of “French cultural interests in the declining Ottoman Empire,” to borrow the title used by historian Jacques Thobie for his study of this issue.25 Drawing on the archives of the French Foreign Office, whose positions and assumptions he sometimes adopts somewhat uncritically, his studies describe French missionaries as docile implementers of French policy. Thobie’s findings have since been nuanced by research that draws on other (Jesuit) sources, which have shed light on the sometimes complex relations between the French authorities and the Society, and in particular on the religious dimension of Jesuit education: in many of the classes where pupil numbers massaged the statistics of the missionary schools (which were believed to teach the French language), the catechism was in fact taught in Arabic.26 The paradoxical relationship with the Third Republic, which supported congreganist schools in the Middle East while seeking to drive them out of France, has prompted frequent commentary. The policy can be explained by the particular recruitment practices of the French Foreign Office, which was less secular than other government departments. This alliance between anti-modern Jesuits and French Republicans also relied on a common conception of the Middle East that was shared by the missionaries and many French politicians of the time, according to which deeply religious Middle Eastern societies could only understand the language of religion.27 US scholars such as Samy Zaka and Edward Falk have also highlighted the “gallicization” of the Jesuit mission, which, they claim, abandoned its proselytizing role in favor of a national–religious alliance with the French “politics of civilization.”28

The second issue, the “Latinization” of the Oriental churches, concerns the various writings denouncing Latin missionaries as agents of the centralizing and standardizing policy pursued by the Holy See in the nineteenth century and their apostolate as a vehicle of Latin devotions and concepts that had supposedly “perverted” the Oriental communities.29 This position has now been abandoned. Since historian Bernard Heyberger’s pioneering studies on the Middle Eastern Christians, the relationship between missionaries and the Oriental clergy has been shown to be much more complex than one of direct confrontation: it was a mix of collaboration, indifference, and conflict, fluctuating over time.30 The bishops and patriarchs of the nineteenth century were perfectly able to defend their prerogatives, while their desire to assert power and control over their flock shows the extent to which they had adopted a Latin territorial organization.31 The Latin piety promoted by the missionaries was both appropriated and adapted at a local level. The question has now shifted to the sectarianization of Middle Eastern societies and, with it, to the political construction of community identities.32 Work on the Jesuit influence on the history of the Maronite community in the nineteenth century has already been carried out to some extent,33 but it would still merit a more detailed exploration, so influential was the role of the Society in the training of its clergy.

More than through its religious, sectarian, or political aspects, the Jesuit presence in the Middle East is understood today through its cultural dimension. Scholars are particularly interested in the Jesuits’ activities in the field of education, not so much as a vehicle of French influence as a factor in the transformation of local societies. In a thesis drawing partly on the Society’s sources, Esther Möller has shown the variety of the loci of the mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission) that France sought to promote in the Middle East.34 Historian Frédéric Abécassis has studied foreign schools in Egypt, including the two great Jesuit colleges of Cairo and Alexandria.35 Greater familiarity with the life of these institutions has brought to light their influence in areas that have previously been little explored: as with the other missionary establishments, the Jesuit institutions observed a school calendar that they helped to spread across the Middle East.36 An analysis of Saint Joseph University’s theater productions at the end of the Ottoman period shows the extent to which they presented the institution as an island of Christianity committed to an essentially religious educational project. Through the heroes, martyrs (sometimes saints), kings, or knights portrayed by the students, the Jesuits promoted loyalty to the Catholic Church, obedience to the pope, and, more generally, submission to the clergy.37 Like the other Latin religious orders present in the Middle East, the Jesuits contributed to the spread of Western theater in that region. They therefore appear as key players in the Nahda, the nineteenth-century “renaissance” in Arabic literature, in which many Middle Eastern Christians took part. Thus, thanks to their printing house, journal, and review, the Jesuits participated in the literary and intellectual life of the time, as shown by the studies on Father Louis Cheikho (1859–1927), founder and editor-in-chief of the Al-Mashriq (The Orient) review until his death in 1927. More recently, Father Camille Hochaïmé, himself very active in Jesuit publications throughout his life, paid tribute to the Jesuit authors of the Nahda.38 Several authors have highlighted the role of the Jesuits in the development of a Lebanese or Maronite nationalism, especially during the mandate period.39 The work of Orientalist priests such as Henri Lammens (1862–1937) or Cheikho on the history of the Maronites, on Eastern churches, or on the Islamic world has also been discussed.40 Some scholars have criticized these Jesuits on the grounds that they were too apologetic or overly hostile to Islam. The life and work of Lammens would certainly merit at least a doctoral thesis, but no scholar has yet come forward to complete this task.

Hence the most recent academic research deals with the Jesuits’ contributions to changes in local societies, particularly at the end of the nineteenth century or during the French mandate in Syria and Lebanon. Today, this period has become a popular subject for researchers working on the history of the Middle East, and it is hardly surprising that this preference has borne fruit in the field of missionary and Jesuit studies. However, the question of the Jesuits’ relations with the local populations, and the latter’s receptiveness or opposition to the Jesuit priests, has yet to be examined in detail. The current author’s doctoral thesis explores how the expectations of these populations guided the Jesuit apostolate from the beginning of the “second” mission in Syria, from a more parochial magisterium to schools, from the rural to the urban world, from small classes to a great urban college (which is what Saint Joseph University was, at least until 1923). But little is still known about the Jesuits’ assistants, from the Sisters of the Holy Hearts (Sœurs des Saints Cœurs) to the teachers in their schools, despite the crucial role they played in the expansion of the Society’s activities in the Middle East. Further studies need to be carried out on the “small world” that gravitated around the Jesuits and their residences. Because of the dynamism and centrality of Saint Joseph University (the home of many priests), the Oriental Library, and the printing house, the field is dominated by studies on Lebanon. But what of the Jesuit presence in Syria, Aleppo, or Damascus? Or in the rural regions of Hauran or Al-Jazira? Similarly, the missions in Armenia or Algeria, and the works of the Jesuits in Jordan or in Turkey, would certainly benefit from further historical research.

To think about the relations between the Jesuits and local societies is also to think about their presence in an area profoundly shaped by Islam. From the beginnings of their “new” mission in Syria (1830s) until the early twentieth century, Jesuit missionaries (along with Latin missionaries in this area in general) exhibited a mix of mistrust and indifference toward the Muslim world around them. Yet there are also other reasons for the lack of evangelization efforts. In the Ottoman Empire, it was forbidden to proselytize in Muslim populations, and any attempt to do so was as dangerous to the proselytizer as to the convert. Converting Muslims was thus seen as impossible, and the missionaries accordingly preferred to focus on Christians and the “reform” of the Christian churches. Although the situation admittedly varied depending on whether the Jesuits lived in Damascus or in the Lebanese mountains, in Nablus or in the cosmopolitan circles of Alexandria, all of the missionaries were first and foremost interested in the Christian communities; it was only in the 1920s or 1930s that they began to show greater interest in Islam, as indicated by the publication of the journal En terre d’Islam (In the Muslim land), which the Lyon province took over in 1934.41 A new generation of missionaries began to work in the Middle East during the interwar period. The fall of the Ottoman Empire (1923) and the period of European (French and British) domination of the Middle East (French and British mandates, the British protectorate in Egypt), raised hopes among the missionaries that the Middle East might soon “return” to the Christian faith. In the 1930s, the Jesuits of Lyon promoted a missio islamica, which Father Christophe Bonneville (1888–1947) was appointed to implement in the Middle East and beyond in all Muslim regions,42 yet the Second World War interrupted his plans for the Muslim world. Apart from Bonneville’s attempt to develop missions among the Muslims, scholars have shown little interest in the relations between Jesuit missionaries, Islam, and the Muslims of the Middle East, focusing instead on other Catholic religious orders such as the Dominicans or the White Fathers.43 It is unclear whether the closure of the Society’s post-1939 Roman archives is to blame for this relative lack of interest.

Finally, it should be noted that there are few works on the history of the Society in the Middle East as an institution. In this respect, studies on the Jesuits of the Middle East have done little to take advantage of the resurgence of research on the Society of Jesus since the 1980s and 1990s. While an increasing number of scholars have begun to draw on the Society’s archives for their analyses of the political, social, or cultural evolution of local societies, very few have used them to study the history of the Jesuits outside the order’s Roman or broader European heartland. This failure is not only detrimental to the history of the Society of Jesus and, more generally, to the history of religions; it also means that we lack of knowledge about the circumstances in which the documents used as sources by today’s scholars were produced, and thus it is not possible to examine them critically.


Today, the history of the Society of Jesus in the Middle East is known primarily through Jesuit writings, many of which are far from academic in nature. Instead, their aim is to familiarize contemporary Jesuits with this history in order to reinforce the order’s cohesion through its members’ loyalty and adherence to a shared past and project. Another goal is to bring information to a wider public that is likely to support the Society’s activities. Finally, the works produced by Jesuits allow the order to retain control over the discourse and narratives surrounding its apostolate in these Muslim lands.

Nonetheless, this history has benefited from the interest elicited by the Society’s missions overseas in general, and in the Middle East in particular. Long confined to the history of Middle Eastern Christians, of the Catholic Church, or of the French presence in the Middle East, this history has focused in particular on the Jesuits in Lebanon (and Beirut) and in Egypt, their educational work and their role as orientalists, writers, and publishers during the Nahda. Some aspects of the Jesuits’ history in the Middle East (the missions in Armenia, Algeria, Syria, and Iraq) have not been explored to the same extent. However, this history is now being enriched by comparative methods (exploring different Catholic missions, missions and humanitarian aid, modern and contemporary missions) as well as by new questions raised by approaches such as connected histories, global history, or gender history. Jesuit history in the Middle East thus remains essential to researchers wishing to better understand Middle Eastern societies, their relations with Europe, the United States, or Russia, and, more specifically, the contemporary history of the Society of Jesus.


^ Back to text1. The Anglo-American concept of the “Middle East,” which refers to the area stretching from Morocco in the west to Pakistan in the east, encompasses this geographical presence better than the French equivalent (the Near East), which excludes the Maghreb, so it is in this sense that the term will be used here. In 2015, the province had 139 members, of which a quarter were scholastics (students). Most of them live in Lebanon (fifty-four), followed by Egypt (thirty-four), the Maghreb (twelve), Syria (nine), Turkey (four), and around twenty in other provinces. Catalogue de la province du Proche-Orient et du Maghreb de la Compagnie de Jésus (Beirut: Dar el-Machreq, 2015), 68. The Society as a whole has twelve thousand members.

^ Back to text2. Interview with Father Michael D. Linden in JIVAN: News and Views of Jesuits in India (April 2013); available online at (accessed January 3, 2018). Interview with Father Dany Younes, provincial, Middle East province, Beirut, January 17, 2017.

^ Back to text3. Francophonie policy refers to the French policy of promoting the use of the French language all over the world.

^ Back to text4. Chantal Verdeil, “La Compagnie de Jésus au ‘Levant,’ à propos d’un livre de Charles Libois,” Proche-Orient chrétien 62 (2012): 22–30.

^ Back to text5. Michel Jullien, Histoire de la nouvelle mission de la Compagnie de Jésus: Notes et additions confidentielles, à M.  Jullien, La nouvelle mission de la Compagnie de Jésus en Syrie, 2 vols. (Paris: Delhome et Briguet, 1899). Copies of these “notes” can be found in Beirut, Rome, and Vanves.

^ Back to text6. Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen, “Un jésuite français en Egypte: Le Père Jullien,” in Itinéraires d’Égypte, mélanges offerts au P. Maurice Martin, S.J., ed. Christian Décobert (Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale du Caire, 1992), 231–47.

^ Back to text7. Louis Jalabert, S.J., “En Syrie et au Liban, un siècle d’effort missionnaire,” Etudes 210 (1932): 129–51; Jalabert, “La conquête missionnaire par l’influence intellectuelle: Le centenaire de la mission jésuite en Syrie,” Revue d’histoire des missions 3 (1931): 331–36; Jalabert, “Le centenaire de la mission jésuite en Syrie,” Lettres de Fourvières (1931). See also Guillaume Jerphanion, S.J., “Les jésuites en Syrie (1831–1931),” Orientalia christiana (1932): 166–72; and Henri Charles, S.J., Jésuites missionnaires, Syrie-Proche-Orient (Paris: Beauchesne, 1929), as well as Missionnaires de vingt ans (Paris: Dillen, 1931); and Gabriel Levenq, La nouvelle mission de la Compagnie de Jésus au Liban et en Syrie, 1831 (Beirut: Imprimerie catholique, 1925). A review can be found at: (accessed January 3, 2018).

^ Back to text8. Henri Jalabert, S.J., La vice-province du Proche-Orient de la Compagnie de Jésus, Egypte, Syrie, Liban (Beirut: Imprimerie catholique, 1960); Jalabert, Jésuites au Proche-Orient, notices biographiques, 1839–1986 (Beirut: Dar-el-Machreq, 1987).

^ Back to text9. Sami Kuri, S.J., Une histoire du Liban à travers les archives des jésuites, 3 vols. (Beirut: Dar-el-Machreq, 1996).

^ Back to text10. Charles Libois, S.J., Jésuites au Proche-Orient, notices biographiques, vol. 2, 1986–2004 (Beirut: Dar-el-Machreq, 2004).

^ Back to text11. Charles Libois, S.J., La Compagnie de Jésus au “Levant”: La province du Proche-Orient, notices historiques (Beirut: Dar-el-Machreq, 2009). For a detailed review, see Verdeil, “La Compagnie de Jésus au ‘Levant,’” 22–30.

^ Back to text12. See, for example: Jean-Baptiste Piolet, S.J., “L’université Saint-Joseph à Beyrouth, à l’occasion de son cinquantenaire,” Revue d’histoire des missions 3 (1926): 52–91; Henri Jalabert, S.J., Histoire d’un siècle: La congrégation des Soeurs des Saints Coeurs de Jésus et de Marie au Liban et en Syrie, 1853–1953 (Beirut: Maison Mére, 1956); Université Saint-Joseph, Les jésuites en Syrie, 1831–1913 (Paris: Les éditions Dillen, 1931); Les pères jésuites à Ghazir 1844–1944 (Beirut: n.p., 1944); Louis Ronzevalle, S.J., L’imprimerie catholique de Beyrouth et son oeuvre en Orient (1853–1903) (Brussels: Polleunis et Ceuterick, 1903); André d’Alverny, S.J., Notre-Dame de Bikfaya, 1833–1933 (Beirut: n.p., 1933).

^ Back to text13. Jean Ducruet, Un siècle de coopération Franco-libanaise au service des professions de la santé (Beirut: Imprimerie catholique, 1992); Ducruet, Livre d’or, 1913–1993, Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth, Faculté de droit, de sciences politiques et économiques (Beirut: Imprimerie catholique, 1995); Ducruet, Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth: Faculté d’ingénierie, Livre d’or, 1919–1999 (Beirut: Université Saint-Joseph, 1999).

^ Back to text14. Mission de la Compagnie de Jésus (province de Lyon), notice sur la mission de petite Arménie (1881–1924) (Lyon: Société anonyme de l’imprimerie A. Rey, 1924). More recently, see Philippe Luisier, S.J., “Présence des jésuites en Turquie au XIXe et au XXe siècle,” Mélanges de l’École française de Rome: Moyen-Age 110, no. 2 (1998): 783–94.

^ Back to text15. On the former, see: Henri Jalabert, S.J., Le père Paul-Marie Riccadonna S.J., 1799–1853 (Beirut: Maison Notre-Dame, 1963); Kamil Kantak, Le père Maximilien Ryllo (Beirut: Imprimerie catholique, 1950); Le père Henri Lammens S.J. (1862–1937): Notice et bibliographie (Beirut: Imprimerie catholique, 1944); Le R.P. Claudius Chanteur (1865–1949) (Bikfaya, Lebanon: École Notre-Dame de la Délivrance, 1950); 20 ans de Rectorat à l’USJ, 50 ans au service du Liban, Jean Ducruet S.J. (Beirut: Publication des Presses de l’Université Saint-Joseph, 2011); Georges Jabbour, Al Ab Kamil Huchayma al-yasū’iya, safhāt ‘anhu wa minhu (le P. Caimme Hochaïmé, pages de lui et sur lui) (Damascus: Dartlass, 2014). On the latter, see: Auguste Carayon, S.J., ed., Notes historiques sur cinq jésuites massacrés au Mont Liban en 1860, recueillies par le P. Pierre-Marie Martin (Paris: l’Ecureux, 1865); En souvenir du P. André Masse SJ (1940–1987) (Université Saint-Joseph, 1987).

^ Back to text16. Levon Nordiguian, ed., Le P. Joseph Delore (1873–1944) (Beirut: Presses de l’Université Saint-Joseph, 2003); Sami Kuri and Lévon Nordiguian, L’Église Saint-Joseph des pères jésuites (Beirut: Presses de l’USJ, 2001); Carla Eddé, L’USJ, portrait d’une Université (Beirut: Presses de l’Université Saint-Joseph, 2000); Carole Dagher, Passion pour une terre délaissée, Nicolas Kluiters, jésuite au Liban (Brussels: Lessius [Au singulier], 2013); Christian Taoutel and Pierre Wittouck, S.J., Le Peuple libanais dans la tourmente de la Grande Guerre 1914–1918, d’après les archives des pères jésuites au Liban (Beirut: Presses de l’Université Saint-Joseph, 2015).

^ Back to text17. Catherine Mayeur, “Un collège jésuite face à la société multiconfessionnelle égyptienne: La Sainte-Famille du Caire (1879–1919),” Revue d’histoire de l’Église de France 78, no. 201 (July–December 1992). Rafaël Herzstein has published several articles on the mission and the Society of Jesus in the Middle East, mostly in Lebanon. See Rafaël Herzstein, “Une réconciliation entre Paris et la Compagnie de Jésus,” Mémoire spiritaine 22 (2005): 96–113; Herzstein, “The Oriental Library and the Catholic Press at Saint-Joseph University in Beirut,” Journal of Jesuit Studies 2, no. 2 (2015): 248–64. Both articles draw on the Society’s Roman and French sources and Jesuit writings, without the use of any secondary literature.

^ Back to text18. Ugo Colonna, “La Compagnie de Jésus en Algérie (1840–1880): L’exemple de la mission de Kabylie (1863–1880),” Maghreb 135 (1992): 68–78.

^ Back to text19. (accessed January 3, 2018).

^ Back to text20. Father Prat pasted printed matter (newspaper, directory) over the letters, which are now partially or totally impossible to read.

^ Back to text21. Chantal Verdeil, “Martyrs de la foi catholique, combattants de l’Église romaine: Les héros du théâtre de l’Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth (1875–1914),” in Entangled Education: Foreign, National and Local Schools in Ottoman Syria and Mandate Lebanon (19th–20th Century), ed. Julia Hauser, Christine Lindner, and Esther Möller (Beirut: Orient Institut Beirut, 2016), 181–99.

^ Back to text22. Esther Möller, Orte der Zivilisierungsmission: Französische Schulen im Libanon 1909–1943 (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013); Samy F. Zaka, “Education and Civilization in the Third Republic: The University Saint-Joseph, 1875–1914” (PhD diss., The University of Notre Dame, 2006); Ussama Makdisi, The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); Edward A. Falk, “Lyon to Liban: Language, Nation and Faith in the Jesuits Schools of Ottoman Lebanon,” in Hauser, Lindner, and Möller, Entangled Education, 165–80.

^ Back to text23. Since the beginning of the “revolution” in Syria, a Dutch Jesuit has been shot and killed (2014) and an Italian Jesuit has been kidnapped (2013).

^ Back to text24. Verdeil, “La Compagnie de Jésus au ‘Levant.’”

^ Back to text25. Jacques Thobie, Les intérêts culturels français dans l’Empire ottoman finissant (Louvain: Peeters, 2008).

^ Back to text26. Chantal Verdeil, “Les écoles d’Orient: Le réseau scolaire congréganiste en Syrie (1880–1914),” in France-Levant de la fin du XVIIe siècle à la Première guerre mondiale, ed. Bernard Delpal, Bernard Hours, and Claude Prudhomme (Paris: Geuthner, 2005), 145–66.

^ Back to text27. Chantal Verdeil, “L’Université Saint-Joseph et la Troisième République,” in Une France en Méditerranée, ed. Patrick Cabanel (Paris: Créaphis, 2006), 235–52.

^ Back to text28. Zaka, “Education and Civilization in the Third Republic”; Falk, “Lyon to Liban.”

^ Back to text29. Profoundly affected by the nationalist wave of the 1950s and 1960s, Father Joseph Hajjar (b.1923) was for a long time a harsh critic of the Latin Catholic missions and an ardent defender of the Oriental churches supposedly threatened by these missions. Joseph Hajjar, “Les églises orientales catholiques de la guerre de Crimée à la première guerre mondiale,” in Nouvelle histoire de l’Église, vol. 5, L’Église dans le monde moderne (de 1848 à nos jours), ed. Roger Aubert, M. David Knowles, and Lodewijk Rogier (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1975), 491–98.

^ Back to text30. Bernard Heyberger, Les chrétiens du Proche-Orient au temps de la réforme catholique (Rome: École française de Rome, 1994).

^ Back to text31. Chantal Verdeil, La mission jésuite du Mont-Liban et de Syrie (1830–1864) (Paris: Les Indes Savantes, 2011).

^ Back to text32. See Ussama Makdisi, The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

^ Back to text33. Charles A. Frazee mentions Saint Joseph’s University, whose seminary and faculty of theology “provided Maronite and other Catholic Churches of the East with opportunities never before available.” Frazee, Catholics and Sultans: The Church and the Ottoman Empire, 1453–1924 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 282.

^ Back to text34. Möller, Orte der Zivilisierungsmission.

^ Back to text35. Frédéric Abécassis, “L’enseignement étranger en Égypte et les élites locales, 1920-1960: Francophonie et identités nationales” (PhD diss., Université Aix-Marseille, 2000).

^ Back to text36. Chantal Verdeil, “Le temps des missionnaires: Calendriers et emplois du temps dans les établissements scolaires de l’empire ottoman à la fin du XIXe siècle,” Calendriers, mesures et rythmes du temps: associations et conflits, REMMM 136 (2014): 89-108; (accessed January 3, 2018).

^ Back to text37. Verdeil, “Martyrs de la foi catholique,” 181–99.

^ Back to text38. Most authors who have written about this subject are Jesuits. See Vincenzo Poggi, S.J., et al., L’Université Saint-Joseph et l’orientalisme (Beirut: CEDRAC, 2008). Camille Hechaïmé, La yesu’iyūn wa al-adāb al ‘arabiyya wa al islamiyya, sīr wa athār [Jesuits and Arab and Muslim literature] (Beirut: Dar al Machreq, 2009).

^ Back to text39. Asher Kaufman, Reviving Phoenicia: The Search for Identity in Lebanon (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004).

^ Back to text40. Matti Moosa, The Maronites in History (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1986).

^ Back to text41. Claude Prudhomme and Oissila Saaïdia, “Jésuites lyonnais au Proche-Orient: La rencontre du monde arabo-musulman (1843–2002),” in Les jésuites à Lyon, XVIe–XXe siècle, ed. Étienne Fouilloux and Bernard Hours (Lyon: ENS Editions, 2005), 205–30.

^ Back to text42. Ibid.

^ Back to text43. Chantal Verdeil, ed., Missions chrétiennes en terre d’Islam, Moyen-Orient, Afrique du Nord (XVIIe–XXe siècles): Anthologie de textes missionnaires (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013). 

Cite this page
Verdeil, Chantal, “The Jesuits and the Middle East from the Nineteenth Century to the Present Day: A Historiographical Essay”, in: Jesuit Historiography Online. Consulted online on 30 September 2023 <>
First published online: 2018

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