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France and the Levant/Chapter 10

 

X. Orthodox and Protestant Competition in Syria

While France fought a losing battle with Great Britain in Egypt, her historic influence in Syria and Palestine was thwarted by other competitors. In 1840 the Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes and the Filles de la Charité began their educational work. The French tongue deposed Greek and Italian from their predominant position; and to-day the French possess more schools than any other Power. On the other hand the growth of Russian power throughout the nineteenth century, combined with the immense influx of Russian pilgrims to the Holy Places, gave the Orthodox Church a prestige that it had never before possessed. The interest of Protestant nations has also steadily increased. English missionaries commenced operations in the Levant in the twenties; and in 1841 Prussia and England agreed to establish a Bishopric at Jerusalem, with jurisdiction over Palestine, Chaldaea, Egypt and Abyssinia. The Bishop was to be selected alternately by the two Powers and to be consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury; and the system remained in operation till 1883, when Bismarck declined to fill the vacancy. Since then the Bishopric has been entirely Anglican.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century several attempts were made to challenge the semiofficial position of France as Protector of the Eastern Christians. In 1870 Austria asked to be allowed to share the protectorate, but was met with a flat refusal and had to content herself with the right of protecting the Christians in Macedonia and Albania, conferred on her by the Porte in the treaties of 1699 and 1718. The next challenge came from Germany. In consenting in 1874 to the substitution of Mixed Courts for consular jurisdiction in Egypt, France excluded religious and educational establishments, over which she reserved her ancient protectorate. When Germany gave her consent to the establishment of the Courts in the following year she declared that she could not recognize France's exclusive protectorate over Catholic institutions in the East, and reserved all her rights over German subjects belonging to any such establishment.

In accepting the invitation to the Congress of Berlin in 1878, France stipulated that it should deal only with questions raised by the Russo-Turkish war, thus ruling out the discussion of Egypt, Syria, and the Holy Places, and preventing the Congress from either confirming or condemning the action of Germany in 1875. The promise was given, but in the opinion of some Frenchmen it was not kept. On the initiative of Great Britain the following clauses were inserted in Article 62.

 

"Ecclesiastics, pilgrims, and monks of all nationalities travelling in Turkey shall enjoy the same rights, advantages and privileges. The right of official protection by the Diplomatic and Consular Agents of the Powers in Turkey is recognised both as regards the above-mentioned persons and their religious, charitable and other establishments in the Holy Places and elsewhere."

 

In submitting this text to Congress Bismarck remarked that the British formula meant "the substitution of Christendom for a single nationality." Instead of opposing the proposition, the French plenipotentiary Waddington contented himself with demanding that the text should have regard to the rights of France and record the maintenance of the status quo. He therefore proposed and carried the addition of the formula, "the rights of France are expressly reserved"; and Prince Gorchakov added, "It is well understood that no alterations can be made in the status quo in the Holy Places."

In 1898 M. Delcassé, Minister of Foreign Affairs, obtained through the Cardinal-Archbishop of Reims a satisfactory declaration from the Pope in reply to the Cardinal's proposal to form a Committee of Defence of the French Protectorate of the Christians in the Levant.

 

"France has in the East a special mission which Providence has confided to her," wrote Leo XIII in an autograph letter. "It is a noble mission which has been consecrated not only by centuries of practice but by international treaties. The Holy See is resolved not to modify in any way the glorious partimony which France has received from her ancestors, and which she is doubtless determined to continue to deserve by showing herself always equal to her task."

 

The situation underwent a serious change in 1905 when the French Government denounced the Concordat and terminated official relations with the Papacy. Austria at once informed the Vatican that in her opinion France had forfeited her right to protect the Christians, and argued that that mission should be transferred to herself. The Austrian demand failed; but a breach in the French Protectorate was made when France conceded the Italian claim to protect Catholic missions in which Italians formed a majority. Though a special application had to be made in every case, thirty-three such missions had been transferred from the protection of France to that of Italy before the outbreak of the Great War.

It was, however, perceived that the breach with Rome had regrettable consequences abroad. In a speech in the Chamber in March 1914 M. Louis Martin declared that since 1901, the year in which many of the Orders had been suppressed, the French members of the French religious establishments in the Near East had fallen from 2000 to 1000. In the following month the Chamber on the proposal of M. Leygues, adopted a motion "inviting the Minister of Foreign Affairs to take the necessary measures to maintain and develop the French establishments in the East." A special authorization, it was suggested, should be granted to the various religious congregations supplying the personnel of the missions, schools and charitable institutions in the Levant to re-open their seminaries and training schools in France. The proposal was more readily accepted by the Foreign Minister since the law suppressing the Orders contained a clause empowering the Government to permit, with the approval of the Council of State, the re-opening on French territory of establishments of congregations formerly authorized. Before, however, this considerate policy could be put into practice, the world conflict had broken out.