(A map of the modern day Middle East)
Having played a prominent role in Christian history and doctrine, the Middle East has been of interest to Latter-day Saints from the earliest days of their history. Yet political turmoil in the Ottoman Empire, two world wars, and restrictions imposed by local governments have challenged the Church’s efforts to establish official presence in the Middle East. Despite these many difficulties, the Church has grown in various Middle Eastern countries, due mostly to the influx of expatriate Church members who work there. Before 1950 Church activities were limited to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt, but since then they have also occurred in Iran, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, and the Arab countries of North Africa and the Gulf.
The history of the Church in the Middle East dates from 1841, when Elder Orson Hyde, an apostle, prayed on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem for the gathering of Abraham’s children (especially the Jews) to Palestine, for the building up of Jerusalem, and for the rearing of a temple. Latter-day Saint missionary work in the Middle East began in 1884 when Jacob Spori opened the Turkish Mission in Istanbul. The largest branches of the Church, consisting mostly of Armenian converts, were established in the cities of Aintab, Turkey, and Aleppo, Syria. The mission closed in 1909 because of the increasing political turmoil in the Ottoman Empire.
In 1921, after World War I, the mission was reopened in Aleppo and named the Armenian Mission. In 1928 its headquarters were moved to Haifa in Palestine, but the mission was closed that December with the sudden death of Joseph Booth, the mission president (the fifth Latter-day Saint missionary to die while serving in the Middle East). The mission was established again in 1933 as the Palestine-Syrian Mission but was closed in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II. In 1947 the mission reopened, and in 1950 it was renamed the Near East Mission. It was discontinued for the last time in January 1951.
For the next 20 years, Church activity in the Middle East consisted mostly of individual members and small groups scattered in various countries and a few missionaries from the Swiss Mission assigned to work in Lebanon. In 1969 a Church group was organized in Jerusalem to accommodate Brigham Young University faculty and students involved in a Near Eastern Studies program. Other events there included the organization of the first district (1977), the dedication of the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden on the Mount of Olives (1979), and the dedication of the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies (1989).
The advent of the Cold War in the 1950s, the dramatic increase in oil revenues which occurred in the early 1970s, and the signing of the Camp David peace accord in 1979 brought an influx of expatriate businessmen, consultants, engineers, educators, and military advisers to the Middle East. Among these workers were many LDS professionals and their families who desired to organize themselves for purposes of worship and fellowship. Governments began gradually and discreetly to allow more non-Muslim groups to hold religious services.
Beginning in the late 1950s, small branches with mostly expatriate members were established in Turkey at Istanbul, Ankara, Adana, Izmir, and Sinop. A branch of the Church has been operating in Cairo, Egypt, since 1974. The Iran Tehran Mission was organized in July 1975, the first LDS mission headquartered in the Middle East since 1950, but the missionaries were evacuated in December 1978 when fighting between government and revolutionary forces began to intensify. In 1989 Jordan became the first Arab country to sign a formal agreement with the Church, allowing it to lease property and establish the Center for Cultural and Educational Affairs in Amman. A branch of the Church operated in Beirut, Lebanon, between 1965, when the first missionaries were assigned there from the Swiss Mission, and 1975, when Church activities ceased with the outbreak of civil war. A branch was reestablished in Beirut in May 1990 at the end of the civil war. An expatriate branch was organized in Damascus, Syria, in December 1997. Small groups and branches of expatriate members have also been organized intermittently since 1950 in Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, and Iraq.
The presence of Church members in the Gulf is a result of the relocation of Latter-day Saint expatriates for temporary residence and work. Government officials in Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen have allowed foreign residents to hold religious services on condition that these activities remain low-key and that Islamic laws and traditions, including the restriction against proselyting, be respected. Dubai granted legal status to the Church in 1993, and Bahrain officially recognized the Church in 1997.
Despite its reputation for vigorous missionary activity in other areas of the world, the Church has observed religious restrictions in the Middle East by making nonproselyting commitments to government leaders and by issuing strict instructions for members to honor these commitments. In the 1990s the Church adopted a formal policy of not proselyting, teaching, or baptizing Muslims who either live in or plan to return to the Middle East. This step was taken to accommodate Islamic laws that stipulate legal and social sanctions for Muslims who convert to other faiths.
The Church has refrained from taking sides on the Arab-Israeli question; rather, the position of Church leaders is best revealed by the manner in which they have quietly sought to cultivate good relations and a reputation for impartiality with both Israelis and Palestinians. The following statement by Elder Howard W. Hunter, then a member of the Twelve, is characteristic of this attitude: “Both the Jews and the Arabs are children of our Father. They are both children of promise, and as a church we do not take sides. We have love for and an interest in each” (Hunter, 35-36).
LDS scriptures and publications have been translated into several Middle Eastern languages: the Book of Mormon in Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi, Turkish, Urdu, and Armenian; the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price in Arabic and Armenian; and Gospel Principles and several pamphlets in Arabic, Armenian, Urdu, Farsi, and Turkish.