Syria has been the setting for many significant events in modern Middle Eastern Latter-day Saint history. Missionary work in the Middle East formally began in the northern part of the Ottoman Empire in 1884. Finding little interest among Europeans and Turks in Istanbul, the missionaries moved inland and succeeded in establishing branches of the Church in the Armenian Christian communities of central Turkey and northern Syria. Eventually Aleppo, Syria, became one of the two largest branches in the mission and the location of mission headquarters from 1907 to 1909 and from 1921 to 1929. Missionaries also sought to establish the Church in other cities in Syria (Hama, Homs, and Damascus) but met with limited success.
When the Turkish Mission was closed in 1909 due to political turmoil, Church members remained without outside leadership and assistance for 12 years, until after the end of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. In 1921 the mission was reopened by Joseph Booth, former president of the mission, and renamed the Armenian Mission, with headquarters in Aleppo. Booth returned to find the mission in total disarray and ravaged by war: the number of Church members was depleted by death, emigration, and deportation, and those who remained were scattered, lonely, sick, and hungry. As a result, rather than pursuing normal ecclesiastical and missionary activities, Booth focused his efforts on dealing with problems of disease, poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment among Church members.
In December 1921, Booth arranged with the French authorities (who controlled Syria in the postwar mandate period) to evacuate LDS Church members from Aintab, Turkey, to Aleppo, Syria, where they could be given proper care and protection. This exodus was subsequently viewed by the Armenian Saints as a miraculous event in Church history a sign of God’s mercy and love for them and was memorialized in plays, poems, and stories. After gathering the Armenian members to Aleppo and establishing a communal home for them in the Khan Jabria quarter, Booth sought tirelessly for the next seven years to alleviate their suffering and improve their lives: teaching them new skills like reading, writing, and carpentry; organizing cooperatives to produce rugs and other goods and market them overseas; soliciting clothing and food donations from Church members in Utah; and arranging for emigration to Europe and North America. The numerous descendants of these Armenian emigrants from Syria and Turkey have made important contributions to the Church and to the communities in which they have settled.
The mission home was moved from Aleppo to Haifa, Palestine, in February 1928. In December of that year, President Booth died of cardiac arrest and overexertion while working with the members in Aleppo. He is buried in the Protestant cemetery there alongside another Latter-day Saint missionary, Emil J. Huber, who died of typhoid in 1908. With Booth’s death the mission was closed and not reopened until August 1933, when Badwagan Piranian arrived to preside over the renamed Palestine-Syrian Mission. Groups of expatriate Church members have held services intermittently in Syria since that time, and an expatriate branch was organized in Damascus in 1997.
“Correspondence, 1932-1955.” Near East Mission. LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City.
“History.” Palestine-Syrian Mission. LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City.
Lindsay, Rao H. “A History of the Missionary Activities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Near East, 1884-1929.” Master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1958.
“Manuscript History.” Turkish Mission. LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City.
“Papers of Joseph Wilford Booth.” Special Collections and Manuscripts. Brigham Young University Library, Provo, Utah.
JAMES A. TORONTO
From Arnold K. Garr, Donald Q. Cannon, and Richard O. Cowan, eds., Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 1207-8. Used with the permission of the Deseret Book Company. Copies prohibited by law.