Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Notes on Protestant Missions in Urmi78

A sketch of Urmi would present few features of general interest if it did not embrace an outline of the mission work which is carried on there on a large scale, first by the numerous agents, lay and clerical, male and female, of the American Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, and next by the English Mission clergy and the Sisters of Bethany, who form what is known as “The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Mission to the Assyrian Christians.”

Besides these there is a Latin Mission of French Lazarists, aided by Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, which has been at work in Urmi and on the plain of Salmas for forty years.

Urmi, the reputed birthplace of Zoroaster, and in past ages the great centre of Fire Worship, was made the headquarters of the American Mission to the Nestorians in 1834, which, with the exception of the C.M.S. Mission in Julfa, was the only Protestant Mission in Persia up to the year 1885.

At present there are four ordained American missionaries, several ladies, and a medical missionary working in Urmi. Under their superintendence are thirty ordained and thirty-one licentiate pastors, ninety-three native helpers, and three Bible-women. The number of Nestorians or Syrians employed as teachers in the College and the Fiske Seminary for girls, as translators, as printers, and as medical assistants, is very considerable.

The whole plain of Urmi, with its innumerable villages, and the eastern portion of the Kurdish mountains, with its Syrian hamlets, are included within the sphere of Mission work.

This Mission has free access to Syrians, Armenians, and Jews, but for Moslems there can be no public preaching or teaching, nor can a Moslem openly profess Christianity, or even frequent the Syrian services, without being a marked man. Hence, while all opportunities are embraced of conversation with Mohammedans, and of circulating the Bible among them, the mission work is chiefly among nominal Christians.

The Americans own a very large amount of property at Urmi. The Fiske Seminary — a High School, in which a large number of girls receive board as well as education — is within the city walls, as well as some of the houses of both clerical and lady missionaries. About a mile outside they have acquired a beautiful and valuable estate of about fifteen acres, plentifully wooded and watered, and with some fine avenues of planes. On this are the large buildings of the Urmi College, the professors’ houses, the Dispensary, and the Medical Mission Hospitals for the sick of both sexes.

A very high-class education is given in the Urmi College, and in addition to the general course there are opportunities for both theological and medical education. Last year there were 151 students, of which number eighteen graduated.

The education given is bringing about a result which was not anticipated. The educated Syrian and Armenian young men, far from desiring generally to remain in their own country as pastors and teachers, and finding no opportunities of “getting on” otherwise, have of late been seized with a craze for leaving Persia for America, Russia, or any other country where they may turn their education to profitable account. It is hardly necessary to add that the admirable training and education given in the Fiske Seminary do not produce a like restlessness among its “girl graduates.” The girls marry at an early age, make good housewives, and are in the main intelligent and kindly Christians.

Possibly the education given in the Urmi College is too high and too Western for the requirements of the country and the probable future of the students. At all events similar regrets were expressed in Urmi, as I afterwards heard, regarding some of the American Mission Colleges in Asia Minor. The missionaries say that the directly religious results are not so apparent as could be desired, that the young men are not ready to offer themselves in any numbers for evangelistic work, and that the present tendency is to seek secular employment and personal aggrandisement.

Though this secular tendency comes forward strongly at this time, a number of evangelistic workers scattered through Persia, Turkey, and Russia79 owe their education and religious inspiration to the teachings of the Urmi College. At present a few of the young men have banded themselves together to go forth as teachers and preachers with the object of carrying the Gospel to all, without distinction of nationality. The hopefulness of this movement is that it is of native origin, and that the young men are self-supporting. A capable Syrian physician and a companion are also preaching and healing at their own cost, only accepting help towards the expense of medicines.

The Medical Mission at Urmi, with its well-equipped Dispensary and its two admirable Hospitals, is of the utmost value, as such missions are all the world over.

Dr. Cochrane, from his courtesy and attention to the niceties of Persian etiquette, is extremely acceptable to the Persian authorities, and has been entrusted by them more than once with missions involving the exercise of great tact and ability. He is largely trusted by the Moslems of Urmi and the neighbourhood, and mixes with them socially on friendly and easy terms.

He and some of the younger missionaries were born in Persia, their fathers having been missionaries before them, and after completing their education in America they returned, not only with an intimate knowledge of etiquette and custom, as well as of Syriac and Persian, but with that thorough sympathy with the people whom they are there to help and instruct, which it is difficult to gain in a single generation, and through languages not acquired in childhood. Dr. Cochrane has had many and curious dealings with the Kurds, the dreaded inhabitants of the mountains which overhang the beautiful plain of Urmi, and a Kurd, who appears to be in perpetual “war-paint,” is the gatekeeper at the Dispensary. One of the most singular results of the influence gained over these fierce and predatory people by the “Missionary Hakīm” occurred in 1881, when Obeidullah Khan, with 11,000 Kurds, laid siege to Urmi.

Six months previously, at this Khan’s request, Dr. Cochrane went up a three days’ journey into the mountains, where he remained for ten days, during which time he cured the Khan of severe pneumonia, and made the acquaintance of several of the Kurdish chiefs. Before the siege began Obeidullah Khan sent for Dr. Cochrane, saying that he wished to know his residence and who his people were, so as to see that none of them suffered at the hands of his men. Not only this, but he asked for the names of the Christian villages on the plain, and gave the Hakīm letters with orders that nothing should be touched which belonged to them. The mission families were assembled at the College, and 500 Christians, with their cattle and horses, took refuge in the College grounds, which were close to the Kurdish lines. The siege lasted seven weeks, with great loss of life and many of “the horrors of war,” as time increased the fury of both Kurds and Persians. But Obeidullah kept his word, and for the sake of the Hakīm and his healing art, not only was not a hair on the head of any missionary touched, but the mixed multitude within the gates and the herds were likewise spared.

Mrs. Cochrane, the widow of the former medical missionary, superintends the food and the nursing in the hospitals, and I doubt whether the most fanatical Kurd or Persian Moslem could remain indifferent to the charm of her bright and loving presence. The profession of Dr. Cochrane opens to him homes and hearts everywhere. All hold him as a friend and benefactor, and he has opportunities, denied to all others, of expounding the Christian faith among Moslems. A letter from him is a safe-conduct through some parts of the Kurdish mountains, and the mere mention of his name is a passport to the good-will of their fierce inhabitants.

The work of the mission is not confined to the city of Urmi. Among the villages of the plain there are eighty-four schools, taught chiefly in Syriac, seven of which are for girls only. The mission ladies itinerate largely, and are warmly welcomed by Moslem as well as Christian women, and even by those families of Kurds who, since their defeat in 1881, have settled down to peaceful pursuits, some of them even becoming Christians.

In fifty years the American missionaries have gained a very considerable and wide-spread influence, not only by labours which are recognised as disinterested, but by the purity and righteousness of their lives; and the increased friendliness and accessibility of the Moslems of Urmi give hope that the purer teachings of Christianity and the example of the life of our Lord are regarded by them with less of hostility or indifference than formerly.

The history of the mission is best given in the words of Dr. Shedd, one of its oldest members.80

The communicants of the “Evangelical Syriac Church,” which might be termed, from its organisation and creed, the Presbyterian Syriac Church, numbered 216 in 1857 and 2003 in 1887.

Apart from the results of Christian teaching and example, there can be, I think, no doubt that the residence of righteous foreigners in Urmi for over half a century has had a most beneficial effect on the condition of the Nestorians. At the time when the first American missionaries settled in Urmi the yoke of Islam was hardly bearable. The Christians were oppressed and plundered, their daughters were taken by violence, and they were scarcely allowed to practise the little religion left to them. The Persian Government, sensitive as it is to European opinion, has gradually remedied a state of matters upon which the reports of the missionaries were justly to be dreaded, and at the present time the Christians of Urmi and the adjacent plain have comparatively very little to complain of.

At the same time the Syriac Church was at its lowest ebb, absolutely sunk in ignorance and superstition. It had no exposition of the Bible, and all worship was in the ancient Syriac tongue, then as now “not understanded of the people.” It had no books or any ability to establish schools. Bibles were scarce, and a single copy of the Psalms could not be bought for less than 32s. The learned nuns and deaconesses of the early days were without successors. Women were entirely neglected, and it was regarded as improper for the younger among them to be seen at church. In Urmi not a woman could read, and in the whole Nestorian region they were absolutely illiterate, with the exception of the Patriarch’s sister and two or three nuns.

The translation of the Bible into modern Syriac, a noble work, now undergoing revision; the College; the Female Seminary; the translation and publication of many luminous books; the circulation of a periodical called Rays of Light, together with fifty years of intercourse with men and women whose chief aim is the religious and intellectual elevation of the people among whom they dwell, have wrought a remarkable change, though that the change is menaced with perils, and is not an absolutely unmixed good, cannot be gainsaid.

It is for the future to decide whether the Reform movement in Umri or elsewhere could survive in any strength the removal of the agency which inaugurated it, and whether a Church without a ritual and with a form of government alien to the genius of the East and the traditions of the fathers, can take root in the affections of an eminently conservative people.

The Mission, founded by the present Archbishop of Canterbury at the request of the Catholicos of the East, Mar Shimun, the Patriarch of the Syrian Church, arrived in Urmi in the autumn of 1885. At the time of my visit it consisted of five mission priests, graduates of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and an ordained Syrian, four of whom were at the headquarters in Urmi, one in the Kurdish mountains, and one on the Urmi Plain. Four Sisters of Bethany arrived in the spring of 1890 for the purpose of opening a boarding-school for girls and instructing the women.

It is hardly necessary to say that the lines on which the Anglican and American missions proceed are diametrically different, and the modes of working are necessarily in opposition. The one is practically a proselytising agency, and labours to build up a Presbyterian Church in Persia; the other purposes to “bring back an ancient church into the way of truth, and so prepare it for its union with its mother church, the Orthodox Church of the East.” The objects of the latter and its ecclesiastical position are stated briefly in the note below.81

The actual work to be done by the Mission is thus summed up by its promoters: “The work of the Mission is in the first place to train up a body of literate clergy; secondly, to instruct the youth generally in both religious and secular knowledge; and thirdly, to print the very early liturgies and service-books, to which the Assyrians are much attached, which have never been published in the original, and of which the very primitive character is shown by their freedom from doubtful doctrine. The Mission in no way seeks to Anglicanise the Assyrians on the one hand, nor, on the other, to condone the heresy which separated them from the rest of Christendom or to minimise its importance.”

The English clergy are celibates, receive no stipends, and live together, with a common purse, each receiving £25 per annum for personal expenses.

It is not a proselytising mission. It teaches, trains, and prints. It has one High School at Urmi for boys under seventeen, and two upon the Urmi Plain, but the work to which these may be regarded as subsidiary is the Urmi Upper School for priests, deacons, and candidates for holy orders. In these four establishments there are about 200 pupils, mostly boarders. There are also seventy-two village day-schools, and the total attendance last year was — boys 1248, girls 225. Seventy-six deacons and young men above seventeen are in the Upper School at Urmi.

The education given in the ordinary schools is on a level with that of our elementary schools. In the school of St. Mary and St. John, which contains priests, deacons, and laymen, some being mountaineers, the subjects taught are Holy Scripture, catechism, Scripture geography, universal history, liturgy, preaching, English, Persian, Osmanli Turkish, arithmetic, and Old Syriac.82 Preaching is taught practically. A list of 100 subjects on a systematic theological plan has been drawn up, and each week two of the deacons choose topics from the list and write sermons upon them.

In 1887 the Mission clergy drew up a catechism containing between 200 and 300 questions, with “Scripture proofs,” which the scholars in all their schools are obliged to learn by heart.

The boys of the Urmi High School and of the Upper School board in the mission house, and are under the constant supervision of the clergy. Their food and habits of living are strictly Oriental. All imitations of Western manners and customs are forbidden, the policy of the Mission being to make the Syrians take a pride in their national customs, which as a rule are adapted to their circumstances and country, and to look down upon those who ape European dress and manners. Denationalisation is fought against in every possible way.

A year and a half ago work among women was begun by four ladies of the community of the Sisters of Bethany. The position of Syrian women, in spite of its partial elevation by means of the Fiske Seminary, is still very low, and within the Old Church there is an absolute necessity for raising it, and through it the tone of the home life and the training of children. These ladies have thirty boarders in their school between the ages of eight and sixteen, a previous knowledge of reading acquired in the village schools being a condition of admission. The daily lessons consist of Bible teaching, the catechism before referred to, ancient and modern Syriac, geography, arithmetic, and all branches of housework and needle-work. Due regard is paid to Syrian customs, and the picturesque Syrian costume is retained.

Since these ladies have acquired an elementary knowledge of Syriac they have been itinerating in the Urmi villages, holding Bible classes, giving instruction, and distributing medicines among the sick. The ignorance and superstition of the Christian women are almost past belief. One great difficulty which the “sisters” have to encounter arises from the early marriages of the girls, child-brides of eleven and twelve years old being quite common. It may reasonably be expected that the presence and influence, the gentleness and self-sacrifice of these refined and cultured Christian ladies will tell most favourably upon their pupils, and strengthen with every month of their residence in Urmi. The Moslems understand and respect the position of voluntarily celibate women, and speak of them as “those who have left the world.”

The Mission clergy of late have striven to instruct the adult Syrian population of the Urmi Plain by preaching among them systematically, explaining in a very elementary manner the principles of Christianity, and their application to the life of man. They have also set up a printing press, and have already printed in Syriac type a number of school books, the Catechism, the Liturgy of the Apostles, the most venerable of the Syrian Liturgical documents, the Second and Third Liturgies, the Baptismal Office, ancient and modern Syriac grammars, and a Lectionary.

It is the earnest hope of the promoters of this Mission that if this ancient Oriental church, once the first mission agency in the world, can be reformed and enlightened, she may yet be the means of evangelising the two great sects of Moslems by means of missionaries akin to them in customs, character, and habits of thought —“Orientals to Orientals.”

The subject of Christian missions in Persia is a very interesting one, and many thoughtful minds are asking whether Christianity is likely to be a factor in the future of the Empire? As things are, no direct efforts to convert Moslems to Christianity can be made, for the death penalty for apostasy is not legally abolished, and even if it were, popular fanaticism would vent itself upon proselytes. It must be recognised that the Christian missionary is a disturbing element in Persia. He is tolerated, not welcomed, and tolerated only while his efforts to detach people from the national faith are futile. Missions have been in operation in Persia for more than fifty years, and probably at the present time there are over seventy-five missionaries at work in the country. If the value of their work were to be judged of by the number of Moslem converts they have made it must be pronounced an absolute failure.

The result of the impossibility of making any direct attack upon Islam is that these excellent men and women are at present ostensibly engaged in the attempt to purify the faith and practice of the Syrian and Armenian churches, to enlighten their members religiously and intellectually, and to Christianise the Jews, waiting patiently for the time when an aggressive movement against Islam may be possible. In the meantime the Holy Scriptures are being widely disseminated; the preacher of Christianity itinerates among the villages, the Christian religion is greatly discussed, and missionary physicians, the true pioneers of the faith, are modifying by their personal influence the opposition to the progress of the missionaries with whom they are associated.

On the whole, and in spite of slow progress and the apparently insurmountable difficulties presented by hostility or indifference, I believe that Christian missions in Persia, especially by their educational agencies and the circulation of the Bible, are producing an increasing under-current, tending towards secular as well as religious progress, and are gaining an ever-growing influence, so that, lamentably slow as the advance of Christianity is, its prospects cannot justly be overlooked in considering the probable future of Persia.83

78 The name of the town and lake is spelt variously Urmi, Urumi, Urumiya, Ourmia, and Oroomiah. The Moslems call it Urumi, and the Christians Urmi, to which spelling I have adhered.

79 At the present time, when the persecution of the Stundists in Russia is attracting considerable attention, it may interest my readers to hear that one of the earliest promoters of the Stundist movement was Yacub Dilakoff, a Syrian, and a graduate of the Old American College. He went to Russia thirty years ago, and was so horrified at the ignorance and gross superstition of the peasantry that he studied Russian in the hope of enlightening them, and to aid his purpose became an itinerant hawker of Bibles. The “common people heard him gladly,” and among both the Orthodox and the Lutherans prayer unions were formed, from which those who frequented them received the name by which they are known, from stunde, hour.

Dilakoff, whom the Stundists love to call “our Bishop,” has been thrown into prison several times, but on his liberation began to teach among the sect of the Molokans in the Crimea and on the Volga with such success that sixteen congregations have been formed among them. His zeal has since carried him to the Molokan colonies on the Amoor, where he has been preaching and teaching for three years with such remarkable results as to have received the title of “a Modern Apostle.”

80 In twenty-eight years after its establishment a conference of bishops, presbyters, and deacons, all of whom had received ordination in the Old Church, with preachers, elders, and missionaries, met and deliberated. “This conference adopted its own confession, form of government, and discipline —— at first very simple. Some things were taken from the canons and rituals of the Old Church, others from the usages of Protestant Churches. The traditions of the Old Church were respected to some extent; for example, no influence has induced the native brethren to remit the diaconate to a mere service in temporalities. The deacons are a preaching order.”

Of the subsequent history of this church the same authority writes as follows:——

“The missionaries in 1835 were welcomed by the ecclesiastics and people, and for many years an honest effort was made to reform the old body” (the Syrian Church) “without destroying its organisation. This effort failed, and a new church was gradually formed for the following reasons ——

“(1) Persecution. The patriarch did all in his power to destroy the Evangelical work. He threatened, beat, and imprisoned the teachers and converts, and made them leave his fold. (2) Lack of discipline. The converts could no longer accept unscriptural practices and rank abuses that prevailed, and it became evident that there was no method to reform them. At every effort the rent was made worse. (3) Lack of teaching. The converts asked for better care, and purer and better teaching and means of grace than they found in the dead language, rituals, and ordinances of the Old Church.

“The missionaries were slow in abandoning the hope that the Nestorian Church would become reformed and purified; but their hope was in vain, their efforts therefore have been not to proselytise, but to leaven the whole people with Christian truth. The separation was made in no spirit of hostility or controversy. There was no violent disruption. The missionaries have never published a word against the Old Church ecclesiastics or its polity.

“The ordination of the Old Church has always been accepted as valid. The missionaries and the evangelical bishops have sometimes joined in the ordination services, and it would be difficult to draw the line when the Episcopal ordination ceased and the Presbyterian began in the Reformed body.

“The relation of the Presbyterian mission work to the old ecclesiastics is thus something different from that found among any other Eastern Christians. The Patriarch in office fifty years ago was at first very friendly to the missionaries, and personally aided in superintending the building of mission houses. Subsequently he did all in his power to break up the mission. The Patriarch now in office has taken the attitude of neutrality, with frequent indications of fairness and friendliness toward our work.

“The next in ecclesiastical rank is the Mattran (Syriac for Metropolitan), the only one left of the twenty-five Metropolitans named in the thirteenth century. The present incumbent recently made distinct overtures to our Evangelical Church to come to an understanding by establishing the scriptural basis of things essential, and allowing liberty in things non-essential. He fails, perhaps, to understand all the scriptural issues between us, but he has a sincere desire to walk uprightly and to benefit his people.

“Of the bishops, three have been united with the Reform, and died in the Evangelical Church. The three bishops in Kurdistan are friendly, and give their influence in favour of our schools.

“A large majority of the priests or presbyters of the Old Church, in Persia at least, joined the Reform movement, and as large a proportion of the deacons. In all, nearly seventy of the priests have laboured with the mission as teachers, preachers, or pastors, and more than half of these continue, and are members of our Synod. In some places the Reform has gathered nearly all the population within its influence. In many places it is not unusual to find half the population in our winter services. On the other hand, there are many places where the ecclesiastics are immoral and opposed, and ignorance and vice abound, and the Reform moves very slowly.”

81 “By God’s help: (1) To raise up and restore a fallen Eastern Church to take her place again amongst the Churches of Christendom. (2) To infuse spiritual life into a church which the oppression of centuries has reduced to a state of weakness and ignorance. (3) To give the Chaldæan or Assyrian Christians (a) a religious education on the broad principles of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; (b) a secular education calculated to fit them for their state of life, the common mistakes and dangers of over-education and of Europeanising education being most carefully guarded against. (4) To train up the native clergy, by means of schools and seminaries, to be worthy to serve before God in their high vocation, and to rise to their responsibilities as leaders and teachers of the people in their villages. (5) To build schools, of which at present there are none, owing to the extreme poverty and misery of the people. (6) To aid the Patriarch and Bishops by counsel, by encouragement, and by active support. (7) To reorganise the Chaldæan Church upon her ancient lines, to set in motion the ecclesiastical machinery now rusty through disuse, and to revive religious discipline amongst clergy and laity. (8) To print the ancient Chaldæan service-books. They are now only in MS., and the number of copies is totally insufficient for the supply of the parish churches.”

82Old Syriac as a lesson means reading portions of Holy Scripture, and translating them into modern Syriac.”

83 The absolute fact, however, is that Christian nations have not shown any zeal in communicating the blessings of Christianity to Persia and Southern Turkey. England has sent two missions — one to Baghdad, the other to Julfa. America has five mission stations in Northern and Western Persia, but not one in Southern Turkey or Arabia.

The populous shores of the Persian Gulf, the great tribes of the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, the Ilyats of Persia, the important cities of Shiraz, Yezd, Meshed, Kashan, Kûm, Kirmanshah, and all Southern, Eastern, and Western Persia (excepting Hamadan and Urmi), are untouched by Christian effort! Propagandism on a scale so contemptible impresses intelligent Moslems as a sham, and is an injury to the Christianity which it professes to represent.

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