Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Quakers of Lebanon: A Forgotten Minority

Quaker families in Lebanon have been dwindling in number as more and more young people choose to travel to further their education, find work, or start over. Quakers are recognized in large part for their accomplishments in academia and business.

Quakers of Lebanon
Photos courtesy of Brummana High School

Dana Hourany

Infused with a wealth of culture and traditions, the small nation of Lebanon stands as a beacon of religious diversity in the Middle East. Wedged between Palestine – the birthplace of Christianity – and the historically rich Syria, Lebanon is home to 18 distinct faiths. Though the country has not seen an official population census since 1932, largely relying on electoral lists for numbers, the CIA fact book puts Muslims at 67.8% (31.9% Sunni, 31.2% Shia), Christians at 32.4% (Maronite Catholics are the largest Christian group), and Druze at 4.5% of the population.

Among Christian minorities are the lesser-known Quakers. Though regarded as a Christian offshoot, converts of all backgrounds are welcome.

At the core of Quakerism is the belief that all individuals contain within them the light of Christ, eliminating the need for any intermediaries.

The Religious Society of Friends made their first foray into the Middle East in the 1860s. These were the first North American Quakers from Maine who set out on an expedition across the MENA region.

The community first established its roots in the Middle East in Ramallah, Palestine and Brummana, Lebanon, where the first two and only Quaker schools were established.

The Friends Girls School was built in 1869 at the request of Palestinians. Subsequently, in 1901, the Boys School was established. Presently, both educational institutions are co-ed; with the Girls school extending from kindergarten to 6th grade and the boys’ school until 12th grade.

In Lebanon, Brummana High School was founded by the British Religious Society of Friends in 1873. The 16-acre campus is nestled in a nature-rich environment with large trees and a picturesque mountain view. The school’s motto is “I serve.”

Since the first missionaries set foot in the region, Quaker families in Lebanon have decreased considerably in number, and only a handful still live in Brummana. However, observers note that Quaker principles have stood the test of time and continue to influence society through upbringing and education.

Brief history

Established in England during the 17th century, English dissenter George Fox played a vital role in founding the Religious Society of Friends – commonly known as Quakers.

Fox came across several seekers who were eager to have a close relationship with the divine during his life. This led him to think that people themselves, not religious organizations, were where God could be found. He referred to those moments as “openings,” when he was certain that God was communicating to him directly.

Despite being imprisoned for alleged blasphemy in 1650, he and other early Quakers persisted in their mission to spread their beliefs. According to Fox’s autobiography, magistrate Gervase Bennet “was the first that called us Quakers, because I bade them tremble at the word of the Lord.”

The terms gained popularity and was adopted by some followers. Other terms used include “true Christians,” “Saints,” “Children of the Light,” and “Friends of the Truth.”

By the 1680s, thousands of Quakers across the British Isles had endured decades of whippings, torture, and imprisonment.

Due to their unconventional beliefs, like the notion that God lives within each person, this movement was put to the test. The Quakers rejected conventional rituals, dismissed the idea of a clergy hierarchy, and believed that men and women are spiritually equal.

Quaker missionaries who arrived to colonial settlements in North America in the middle of the 1650s became a driving force in the abolition of enslavement and the fight for women’s rights.

As for the core values, they can be distilled to “integrity, equality, simplicity, peace, community, and harmony with nature.”

Famous Quakers include author James Michener; philanthropist Johns Hopkins; actors Judi Dench and James Dean; musicians Bonnie Raitt and Joan Baez; and John Cadbury, founder of the chocolate business bearing his name. Two US presidents, Richard Nixon and Herbert Hoover, were also known Quakers.

Journey to the Middle East

The Friends’ community in Palestine has lived through the Ottoman Empire, the First World War, the British Mandate, the Second World War, the 1947 UN Partition Plan, the 1948 War, the Nakba, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’s rule, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the first Intifada, the Gulf War, the second Intifada, the construction of the separation wall, and the ongoing Israeli military occupation.

Their meeting point served as a sanctuary for Palestinians fleeing the 1948 and 1967 wars.

In early 1948, American Quakers, Clarence Pickett and Rufus Jones, formulated a petition for a truce between Israel and Palestine. However, after the proposal failed, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) resorted to raising funds to provide refugee assistance. Currently, the AFSC runs a youth program in the Palestinian territories, with offices based in East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza.

In the 1970s, AFSC established thirteen kindergartens in Palestine that have been receiving funds from Quaker Service Norway since 1993. A large portion of teachers’ wages is paid by the Norwegian Development Agency and Quaker organizations. These kindergartens are currently under the administration of local nongovernmental organizations.

While Quaker presence has diminished in the Middle East in general, and in Palestine and Lebanon in particular, Friends School Ramallah and Brummana High School remain.

Ramallah’s school, which was founded in the 1800s, has had a tumultuous past. It provided refuge to Palestinians during the 1948 conflict, but by 1967, boarding facilities had been shut down as a result of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Despite these challenges, it has managed to uphold its stellar reputation in academia; in fact, it is the only Palestinian educational establishment to provide an international baccalaureate program.

When Swiss Quaker teacher Theophilus Waldmeier arrived in Lebanon in 1873 to serve as Inspector of Schools in Beirut, Mount Lebanon, and Damascus, Brummana High School was founded. Waldmeier arrived in Brummana with the intention of taking over the local Quaker girls’ school. As a consequence, he ended up buying 20,000 square yards of property that belonged to The Friends’ Syrian Mission and that he named “Ayn Essalam” — the fountain of peace. He was given permission by the Syrian mission to construct a boys’ training home. The two were subsequently merged into what would become Brummana High School.

Both institutions were founded in accordance with the Friends’ Society’s ideals. Values like non-discrimination, non-racism, and lack of political bias are emphasized. Furthermore, students are encouraged to use innovative learning tools to work toward higher standards and to kindly and humbly serve their communities.

Quakerism in Lebanon

Quakers of Lebanon
Broumanna boys and girls school, and Quaker meeting house for worship, 1880’s. Photo courtesy of Brummana High School

In the late 1800s, a number of temporary schools were established in Brummana’s neighboring villages in an attempt to encourage families to educate their children. Before they were closed, these small institutions showed promise.

Ras el Maten saw the founding of a Quaker-run school in 1920, under the leadership of Daniel and Emily Oliver from Scotland. However, it was shut down by the 1960s as a result of a lack of funding for reconstruction in the wake of an earthquake that struck the region at the time.

Quakers also founded the first psychiatric facility in the Middle East, known locally as Asfuriyeh, in Lebanon. Its closure was eventually caused by insufficient funding, despite its value. The government acquired it and later sold it as real estate in 1974.

As for families, about five Quaker families remain in Lebanon, according to Shatha Abu Khalil, director of the primary section at Brummana High School, and they are: Manasseh, Cortas, Baz, Abu Khalil, and Khattar.

“The families originally came from different Christian denominations when the school was founded,” she told Fanack. “Once they became involved with the school, they converted to Quakerism.”

Despite Quakerism’s lack of rituals and intermediaries, Abu Khalil says the Friends still hold Sunday meetings at their school during which an hour of silence is observed, and “anyone who feels called upon to share something – from the Bible or otherwise – can do so.”

During weddings and funerals, Quakers are open to inviting priests from all denominations to participate while safeguarding the Quaker spirit, she adds.

As for the students at Brummana High School, Quaker principles are taught from kindergarten through high school. “These are reinforced over the years through various activities and actions we take,” Abu Khalil noted.

Things like charity works, donations, reflection instead of detention, and mandatory community service hours are among the few examples.

Preserving faith through education

Quaker families in Lebanon have been dwindling in number as more and more young people choose to travel to further their education, find work, or start over. Quakers are recognized in large part for their accomplishments in academia and business.

According to Brummana High School’s principal, David Gray, Quakers are less concerned with converting people and preaching their ideology than making a positive contribution to society.

“From an early age, students are taught how to interact with and accept people with different backgrounds without infringing on their personal beliefs,” Gray told Fanack. “For this reason, the school does not teach politics or religion.”

He adds, “Quakers focus on living a good life and inspiring others to do the same, rather than seeking to have people join their faith.”

All of the sects present in Lebanon, the principal claims, can become Quakers and be accepted for their heritage and right to free expression. This is true despite their differences.

Gray notes that the school motto “I serve” has long stood for maintaining Quaker values.

“As part of our school education, we emphasize service to others, the school, and the wider world. Students do not graduate until they have accumulated 160 hours of community service in the last three years.”

Gray characterizes Quakers as “slightly alternative,” where they deviate from conventional wisdom and are not required to conform.

Gray and Abu Khalil assert that Quakerism is distinct from other Abrahamic traditions and goes against the grain of the dominant religions in Lebanon, but that it serves to advance society as a whole. The hope is that today’s youth will learn about peaceful solutions rather than turning to violence in a country that is divided by political and religious groups; a process that may begin in the classroom.

Fanack Water Palestine