Trouble in Syrian New York

St. Raphael Hawaweeny

Way back in January, I began what I intended to be a series on the 1905 arrest and trial of St. Raphael Hawaweeny. I wrote only one article on the subject, though, and even that article was more of a collection of quotations from contemporary newspapers than an actual piece of historical work. I confess to getting sidetracked, and also to not really knowing how to best present the material. You see, New York had numerous newspapers in 1905, and all of them seem to have found the whole affair to be really fascinating. The result is a great volume of fascinating, lively newspaper articles, all of which I wanted to share with my readers. I just couldn’t figure out what to cut, and when to paraphrase. So rather than deal with the problem, I just moved on to other things.

Today, though, I’m going to begin anew my admittedly meager attempt to summarize the crisis that afflicted Brooklyn’s Syrian community and its great Orthodox bishop. I’m going to go all the way back to the beginning, re-presenting material that I originally published on January 5. This time, though, I’m going to restrict myself to relatively brief quotations from the original sources. I will try, as best I can, to sift through the primary sources and give you the basic story, as best I can understand it.

New York’s Syrians were divided into two main camps — Orthodox and Maronite (often called “Greek Catholic”). Each group had a corresponding newspaper — Miraat Ul Gharb (The Mirror of the West) for the Orthodox, and Al Hoda for the Maronites. Miraat Ul Gharb was clearly the weaker of the two publications, appearing only once a week and having a smaller circulation than the daily Al Hoda. The papers were engaged in a war of words, and slanderous articles appeared in both. Finally, St. Raphael could stand no more of it, and he called for the editors to stop publishing such trash. The Al Hoda crowd, which called itself the “Champagne Glass Club,” told him to shut up — that “his place was in the church” (New York Sun, 8/27/1905). In speaking up, St. Raphael made himself a target, and Al Hoda‘s editor, Naoum Mokarzel, took direct aim at the bishop. He accused St. Raphael of numerous offenses, including trying to incite the Orthodox to violence against the Maronites. Miraat Ul Gharb responded, and the back-and-forth attacks continued. Rather than stopping the battle, St. Raphael’s intervention unwittingly made things worse.

In late August, the leaders of the Champagne Glass Club (we’ll call them the CGC from here on out) went to the police with a remarkable story. According to the CGC, on August 15, St. Raphael assembled his congregation and told them that they needed to defend his name with their lives — that, if one or two of them might have to die in defense of his honor, then so be it. On August 20 — again, according to the CGC — Raphael claimed that he was “as great as Grand Duke Sergius of Russia,” and needed to be defended accordingly (the Grand Duke had been assassinated earlier that year). I am convinced that both of these claims are utter fabrications, but if you’re in doubt, just listen to the next allegation of the CGC. From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (8/28/1905):

Another speech was made on Wednesday, August 23, in which the bishop made a statement to the effect that he was wounded by the attack of certain Syrian papers which attempted to stain his morality, and that if such a fact be established and he were proved to be immoral, every marriage that he had performed during the last twelve years among the Syrians in New York and elsewhere would be annulled. Thereupon he called the younger element of his congregation to rise in his defense and several of them who were present provided with arms took such arms and deposited them on a table in the church, in accordance with an established Oriental custom, saying they would defend him with the last drop of their blood.

This is just plain absurd; the CGC overreached. It is unimaginable that St. Raphael, an extremely well-educated Orthodox theologian, would claim that sacraments administered by an immoral clergyman are invalid. We covered that ground back in the early third century, when the Church recognized Donatism to be heretical. No doubt the CGC would respond by saying that, even if Raphael didn’t believe it, he would have made such a claim to incite his flock to violence. But that’s even more absurd — the two Syrian camps already hated each other, and the Orthodox didn’t exactly need any encouragement to fight their Maronite counterparts. Even a hypothetically wicked bishop would have gained nothing for his cause with public pronouncements and actions like the ones Raphael was accused of.

Anyway, of course St. Raphael did nothing of the sort. Here is his version of what happened, as he told it to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

We held a meeting in the basement of the church so that I could calm and restrain my people. I wanted the members of my church to ignore the men who are abusing me. I wanted to advise them to keep their tempers and do nothing to any enemy of mine. I told them that I had forgiven Maluf and Markozel and that they must forgive them. I begged them to keep peace and to have nothing but brotherly love in their hearts.

Forgiving Mokarzel — shoot, even feigning forgiveness — would have been extremely difficult for most people. Listen to this lovely quote from the Al Hoda editor in the New York Times (8/28/1905):

He [Raphael] asserts that his morality has been attacked. I say nothing about his private life — his wine, his card playing. I have not put it in my paper. I respect his church and wish my church to be respected. I am a Roman Catholic. I have heard that the Bishop has said he would crush me, do me bodily and moral injury. He has called together his congregation and appointed a committee of six desperate men to take vengeance upon me and others. Well, I am willing to die for the truth.

Isn’t that great? I think it’s what they call “talking out of both sides of your mouth.” If Mokarzel is telling the truth, he’s doing a pretty lousy job of it. And apparently, in Al Hoda, he was much more slanderous than in the above quote, and his opposite number in Miraat Ul Gharb wasn’t exactly holding back, either. According to the New York Tribune (8/28/1905), it had gotten so bad that the Syrian men forbade their wives from reading the papers.

The police seem to have been more amused than anything else by all this intra-Arab bickering. From the Sun: “The big seargent behind the desk of the Church street police station last night smiled at the idea of bloodshed, and said that no extra police had been placed in the Syrian quarter, though the men on post had been told to exercise vigilance.” Unfortunately, the big seargent was wrong. Within three weeks, words gave way to violent actions, and the whole Syrian quarter was thrown into turmoil.

[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]

4 thoughts on “Trouble in Syrian New York

  1. As a footnote comment, if you will, this series will be preliminary in scope, as it will not be based on the Arabic newspapers in questions nor any letters that may be extant.

    Is this correct, Matthew?

    I offer this footnote simply to help people put things in perspective and to know that there is more work that should be done even while acknowledging that what you are just beginning to do has not yet been done before, either.

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