It’s a funny thing — slander, that is. Once it’s out there, you can’t take it back. Good men — saints — have been accused of the most heinous crimes imaginable, and been completely innocent. At the same time, bad men have been accused of the same crimes, and been guilty. Ultimately, as an historian, it’s difficult to determine innocence or guilt. We piece the story together based on the evidence that has survived, and we try to get a sense of the characters involved. In this case, the accused was Raphael Hawaweeny, the great Syrian Bishop of Brooklyn. I am quite confident that the charges against him were trumped-up, and that he did nothing wrong. But I base that conclusion not only on the evidence of the case itself, and not only on his subsequent acquittal in open court, but also on everything I know about him as a person. I trust him, because he proved himself, time and again, to be trustworthy. The accusations against him are completely out of character, and we know more than a little about his character.
This is a messy story, but it has to be told. To start, I’m going to turn to the capable reporters of three New York newspapers. We’ll begin with the New York Tribune (8/28/1905), the most straightforward version of the story:
Threats of murder have been sent in anonymous letters to several members of the Syrian colony of New-York as a result of a bitter controversy which has been carried on for weeks in the columns of two of the Syrian newspapers of the city. The Rev. Raphael Hawaweeney, of No. 320 Pacific-st., Brooklyn, who recently became the Bishop of the Orthodox Greek Church of the Syrians in Brooklyn, has been dragged into the controversy and accused of inciting a movement for bloodshed. He and his friends declare that he has preached only peace and has advised against violence.
A formal appeal to Police Commissioner McAdoo for protection has been made by Syrian merchants who have received threatening letters, and who have been arming themselves and avoiding going into the streets alone for fear of being murdered. In the appeal to Mr. McAdoo it is declared that Bishop Hawaweeney recently called a meeting of members of his church and asked them to defend him against attacks in one of the Syrian newspapers, telling them that he was to be regarded as a grand duke, to be defended by his people, and that, if necessary, some of them must be ready to lay down their lives for him. It is said in the appeal that some of the young men of his congregation laid their knives on a table in the church, in accordance with an Oriental custom, and swore that they would defend the bishop with the last drop of their blood.
Bishop Hawaweeny said yesterday to a Tribune reporter that nothing of the kind happened, but that he attended a meeting of his congregation to counsel the members against violence, telling them to pay no attention to the attacks on him, as he forgave all his enemies. The trouble, he said, grew out of a circular sent to the six Syrian newspapers of the city by a newly formed society of fifteen men, known as the Champagne Glasses Society, and in reality a drinking club, demanding that the editors and publishers stop publishing paid articles attacking business or social rivals. The circular led to a clash between “Al Hoda,” a daily Syrian paper, published by N.A. Mokazel, and “Meraat-ul-Gharb,” a weekly paper, edited by N.M. Diab. The latter declared in his paper that “Al Hoda” referred to the bishop in certain of its alleged slanderous articles. The bishop was asked by friends of “Al Hoda” to stop the controversy, but he said it was none of his business. N.N. Maloof, a Syrian merchant, had a talk with the bishop in an effort to patch up peace, and “Meraat-ul-Gharb” published an account of the conference, which led Mr. Maloof to insert some signed articles in “Al Hoda,” demanding an explanation from the bishop.
Talks with members of the Syrian colony yesterday disclosed the fact that the newspaper controversy had excited them greatly and had led to a religious fight in which Roman Catholics and members of the Orthodox Greek Church had become involved. Mr. Mokazel said he had been accused of publishing a book attacking the Virgin Mary. A book which he thought was harmless, written by his brother-in-law, was printed at the office of “Al Hoda,” he said, and it created some hostile comment. His life had been threatened in an anonymous letter. His character had been assailed by a friend of Bishop Hawaweeney in an article by published in a paper believed to be under the bishop’s control, he said, and the bishop had declined to stop the attack.
Syrians in the city said yesterday that some articles in “Al Hoda” and “Meraat-ul-Gharb” were indecent. They said they had forbidden the women of their families to read the papers as a result of the controversy.
Mokazel, the editor of Al Hoda, was a real piece of work. In an interview with the the New York Times (8/28/1905), he openly slandered St. Raphael, in one of those classic bits of slander-while-denying-that-you’re-slandering:
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.
And Raphael denied the allegations:
I am a man of peace. I have nothing to do with newspapers. I have been dragged into this controversy without a move on my part. Mr. Mokarzel has attacked my character. But far from urging my congregation to vengeance, I went to their meeting to tell them they must forgive as I forgive and do no violence. Mr. Mokarzel respects nobody. This attack against me comes from a society of freelivers with whom he is in sympathy. They call themselves Jamiat-Al-Alodh, which means “Champagne Glass Club.” These ruffians they say I have hired are poor men whom I have helped to a living.
Likewise, he told the New York Sun (8/27/1905),
There is in New York a Turkish society known as Jamiat-Al-Akdh. The literal translation of that is “Champagne Glass Society.” Its members do not like me because I would not indorse [sic] certain ideas of theirs, and they attacked me in the columns of a newspaper called Al Hoda. On Wednesday of this week members of my congregation met in the basement of St. Nicholas Church, of which I am in charge, and expressed their indignation at the slurs cast upon me. There was no display of arms and no one vowed to avenge the wrongs that had been done me. I am surprised that any one should believe that I would countenance anything unchristian. It is absurd. I am the Bishop of the Orthodox Greek Church in America and my paths do not lead my into politics.
That all happened at the end of August, 1905. Three weeks later, there was an explosion.
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