East Arabia

Mission in the Arabian Gulf (East Arabia) was established due to the political turbulence in Aden, making continuation of work in this area impossible.

Danish Missionary Society (DMS) in East Arabia

On 22 July 1967 a Royal Air Force plane carried the missionaries Martha Holst, Esther Poulsen, Grethe and Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen from Aden to Bahrain where Reformed Church in America (RCA) had their mission. Here they stayed for five days before going on to Denmark. Emsy Nielsen from Beihan did not leave Aden until mid-August. None of them knew if they would ever return. Martha Holst did come back for some years, and in connection with the bookshop work Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen returned to Aden several times.

Aden, South Arabia. Missionaries evacuated by RAF flight to Bahrain, 22 July 1967. Left to right: Martha Holst, Esther Poulsen and Grethe Nørgaard Pedersen.

Due to unstable political circumstances in Aden, Esther Poulsen visited Bahrain and other places in October 1966. She met with Dr John E. Buteyn, mission director of RCA in the Middle East, and they concluded that a partnership between RCA and DMS/Mission to the Orient might be fruitful. RCA was interested in the bookshop concept started by Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen in Aden. And they needed teachers and nurses in Bahrain and Oman, as well. At that time, RCA had about 50 missionaries in the Arabian Gulf. The mission history went back to 1893 when Dr Samuel Zwemer opened small Bible shops in Bahrain, Kuwait and Muscat. The shops were not self-supporting, had no trained booksellers, and Dr Buteyn would like Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen to be a coordinating adviser to the RCA bookshops in the region.

In November 1966, Dr John Buteyn and DMS/Mission to the Orient had a meeting in Copenhagen and decided that the missionaries Anne Lise Jensen, Signe Jung, Birthe and Preben Holm, all studying language in Beirut, should apply for visa to Bahrain or Oman, aiming at a future service here. At the same time, Dr Buteyn suggest-ed that Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen went to Bahrain, but DMS wanted Grethe and Jørgen N.P. to stay on in Aden for a period. The five days in Bahrain gave the Aden missionaries good opportunities to discuss the situation with their American colleagues, and from then the future of Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen was in the Gulf.

In February 1967, Anne Lise Jensen, Signe Jung as well as Birthe and Preben Holm arrived in Bahrain. Shortly after, Signe Jung went on to work in Oman – a new chapter in the history of Islam and DMS/Mission to the Orient. The two missionary societies had been working in Aden and Syria for several years, and now the focus of work changed from individuals to matter. This was difficult for contributors, and some left the mission or gave their support without following the work as close as previously.

When DMS/Mission to the Orient and RCA started their cooperation in Bahrain, Arabian Gulf, the small island had 150,000 inhabitants, and the reigning Sultan was Sheikh Isa bin Sulman Al Khalifah. The missionary work started from church, hospital, girl’s school, and the small Bible shop. About 20-50 persons made up the congregation, mainly Christians from other Arab countries. Only a dozen or so were converts from Islam. In 1968, the Sultan approved the National Evangelical Church of Bahrain as an independent national church. Then the Church changed from a mission church only, to be an acknowledged part of the Arab identity of Bahrain. The missionaries were free to teach Christianity and had plenty of opportunities to talk with patients at the hospital.

Missionary Nurse Anne Lise Jensen with students at American Mission Hospital in Manama, Bahrain.

The American Mission Hospital

At the arrival in 1893 of Samuel Zwemer, Bahrain had no doctors. Through his contributing groups in the USA, he obtained that doctors came to work in the island, and the first mission hospital was built in 1902, a corner-stone for the mission in following years. The hospital broke new ground in health care and started medical educations for doctors and nurses. At the mission centenary in 1993, Minister of information in Bahrain, Tariq Almoayad, wrote, among other things: People love the American Mission Hospital because of the invaluable medical efforts in Bahrain as well as in the neighboring states.

Anne Lise Jensen, missionary of Mission to the Orient worked in this hospital. She often had questions regarding being a missionary and come to serve in this remote place, and had following reflections: The mission hospital was one of few places for Muslims to meet the missionary without the usual control from other Muslims, and to talk and ask questions about the Gospel… Mission is to tell about the Lord you serve, and we do this work because we have been sent not because we feel sorry for people.

American Mission Hospital, Manama, Bahrain, May 1975. In the background (left): The FBG Bookshop.

Hospital Chaplain

When DMS appointed Preben and Birthe Holm, the intention was that after language study they should serve as chaplain and teacher at Church of South Arabia in Aden. In November 1966, however, DMS decided that they should leave for Bahrain as soon as possible. After arrival, they continued studying the Arabic language, and from 1968, Preben Holm became chaplain at American Mission Hospital in Manama, Bahrain. For cultural reasons he only served male patients. Birthe Holm and an Arab female evangelist worked among the women.

Preben Svend Holm (1937-2004). Master of Theology 1964. Sent by DMS to Manama, Bahrain, 1966-1974. Chaplain at the American Mission Hospital, 1968-1973.

The most important job of the chaplain was taking his time to listen. Not all patients had family members visi-ting during their stay as some came from afar, several from Saudi Arabia, and here they found a person they could talk to about everything face to face. Among others, Preben Holm met Hassan Ali who stayed in the hospital for a longer period. He asked for books about the birth and life of Jesus. The Koran teaches Muslims to honor and read the Gospel, and Hassan Ali eagerly read the Arab version. He asked for another copy, gave the book to his son and said: Here, my boy, this is the Holy Book of Christians. Read it!

The Evangelical Church (Church of Christ) at Manama, Bahrain, 1966.

The former missionary to Aden, Marius Borch-Jensen, filled in for Birthe and Preben Holm during leave in Denmark, 1969-70. They finished service in Bahrain 1973 and went back to work with the Danish church. From 1985 to 1988, Olaf Olafsson served as chaplain at the American Mission Hospital.

Al Raja Mission School

During their first years in Manama, American missionaries established Al Raja School, the School of Hope. They wanted to give Arab children hope for a better future by teaching them to read, write and reckon. The first Danish teacher at the school was Birgit Kongsted Jensen. She did not obtain a visa for Pakistan, and instead, she was in Bahrain from 1982 to 1986. Thyra Smidt followed her from 1986 to 1994. Volunteers and associated missionaries worked at the school as well. Al Raja School had about 700 students, girls and boys. Only 30 were Christian Arabs with parents from other Arab countries as Lebanon and Egypt. From the 1980’s, only Christian children were allowed to have lessons in Christianity, and there was a law against preaching to Muslims, even though condition of the Christian church in general was good. It was possible to print church letters, arrange meetings, and to buy Bibles and Christian literature.

Missionary and Teacher Thyra Smidt at the Al Raja School in Manama, Bahrain.

To often-asked questions regarding sending missionaries to a Muslim country where preaching the Gospel was forbidden, Thyra Smidt gave this answer: We are here for the simple reason that our Muslim friends do not know Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of the World. Truly, we are not allowed to preach, but it is very important that Muslims have a chance of meeting and relating to Christians. Christian presence in Muslim countries is essential for possibilities of dialogue between people of various beliefs.


The American mission in Oman started in 1883, when Samuel Zwemer founded a small Bible shop in Muscat. After start in Basra (Iraq) and Bahrain the younger brother of Zwemer, Peter Zwemer, in 1894 became leader of the mission in Oman, and they built a mission school, hospital and Bible shop. Medical work developed and the modern American Mission Hospital opened in 1934, for a long time the only hospital serving the inhabitants of Oman.

American Mission Hospital, Muscat, Oman. Missionary Nurse Signe Jung with a local woman, treated for leprosy.

In the year Oman started export of oil, RCA and DMS/Mission to the Orient entered their mission cooperation in Oman. Missionary Nurse Signe Jung studied language in Lebanon for going to work in Aden. However, when the church in Aden burnt down in October 1965, she was sent to the American Mission Hospital in Muscat, Oman. In October 1968, former missionary in Aden Esther Poulsen followed her. And later also Mary Sanggaard and Emsy Nielsen came to Oman. Volunteers and associated missionaries worked here as well. In 1974, Oman nationalized the hospital. And when DMS/Mission to the Orient finally left Aden in 1973, the missionaries Martha Holst and Anne Marie Michelsen came to Oman for teaching at the mission school. Later Anne Marie Michelsen worked with literature.

Missionary Keld Eigil Bredvig at the FBG Bookshop in Salalah, Oman.

After expulsion of Aase and Lorens Hedelund from Pakistan in 1974, they came to the re-established bookshop in Muscat. Keld Bredvig, engaged by Danish Pathan Mission for Pakistan but failed obtaining a visa, followed later that year. Oman had some of the best conditions for literature work, and eventually five shops were established spread all over the country. However, Oman was to be a temporary partner of Danish mission. The contact faded out after return in 1991 of the last associated missionaries, directly engaged by the government of Oman. In 2002 Mogens Kjær, the Danmission secretary general. recommended a revival of the cooperation in Oman. Yet this has not taken place.

Family Bookshop – From Bible Depots to Bookshop Group

For pioneer missionaries an essential way of working was to distribute Bibles and Bible parts. Illiteracy was big and the mission strategy clear. Aiming at educated people, they reached those with influential jobs, and the literature work was sure to pay off.

Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen talking with an Omani visitor in the bookshop.

In consequence, the mission started schools to teach children and grown-ups to read and write. According to Genesis, God created man in his own image. and by empowering the individual, you held the work of God in respect. At the same time, schools were part of building a Christian leadership facilitating eventual transfer of the new church to local leaders. The influence of these schools on change and social development is difficult to overrate. School work was part of Diaconia.

Selling Bibles and Bible parts often facilitated important dialogues about the Gospel but always had to take place besides the main task of the pastor, doctor, nurse, and teacher. In the late 1950’s, work of the DMS book-shop in Aden had reached an extent that demanded a full-time missionary, educated to run the bookshop. In 1963, Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen was assigned to this job and with dramatic development in Aden already during the first year, this became a stepping-stone for the new group of bookshops (FBG).

Veiled woman arrives at the old bookshop in the bazar (Souq) of Manama, Bahrain, 1968.

Literature Diaconia

Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen continued building up a new concept for literature mission in East Arabia, known as the Family Bookshop Group (FBG) and made in collaboration between RCA and DMS/Mission to the Orient. The objectives approved in 1968 were:

  • To print the Gospel
  • Encourage dialogue between Muslims and Christians
  • Provide all Christian churches in the region with literature and auxiliary materials, provide society with quality literature and other books primarily in Arabic and English
  • Seek the best possible cooperation with various Christian churches
  • Develop a self-supporting organization by efficient leadership
  • Offer education and encourage Arab Christians to become booksellers
  • Develop cooperation between the bookshops and coordinate a future development.

What was new here, was the understanding of bookshops as literature diaconia and equal to schools and hospitals on the principle that diaconia consists of two parts 1) best possible professional skills, and 2) service to fellow human beings.

Developing Arab competence

As establishment of shops in the Arab countries was a pioneer effort, recruiting western missionaries was necessary, with equal weight on the missionary and the bookseller part of the job. Booksellers and missionaries had to follow the 3-Self-principles (Self-governing, Self-financing, Self-spreading) aiming at  eventual taking over of the shops by local Christians. Training of Arab Christian booksellers, capable of taking part in every day work (incl. evangelism) as well as managing the shops, had to be organized. This took place in the different countries, and the Tower Bookshop in Beirut served as a training center, as well.

The old mission garage remodelled to be The Public Bookshop at Manama, Bahrain, 1969.

Success Criterion

Beyond being run efficiently, success of the bookshop group was the result of proper starting time. In 1968, no other bookshops existed in Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, and FBG had a wave of progress in the countries. In addition to Christian literature, the new professionally run bookshops offered fiction, non-fiction, and not least text books for schools which the rapid educational development during these years made profitable. A few key figures from the turnover in Bahrain before and after opening of the new bookshop in Manama on 15th of March 1969 underline the development:
September 1968:                DKK     450
April 1969:                          DKK 15,000

The Family Bookshop opened at Manama, Bahrain, September 1973.

The Information Minister of Bahrain, Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, with FBG Director Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen inspecting the assortment of books in the new FBG bookshop at Manama, Bahrain. September 1973.

In 1970 Lis and Leif Munksgaard, former missionaries in Lebanon for KMA (Kvindelige Missions Arbejdere), were engaged to run the new family bookshop opening in Kuwait that year. Munksgaard brought up the question of success criterion. If the aim was running bookshops according to usual business procedures, only a limited sale of Christian literature might be possible. In that case, Munksgaard found he was not a proper missionary. Later other bookshop missionaries shared a sceptical attitude to the concept. The bookshops, however, developed clearly. If kept on growing as from 1968 until 1971, they could easily pay salaries of employees and also recruit-ment through English and Danish magazines, preferably of missionaries but others loyal to the idea were eli-gible too. Experiences from Bahrain showed that Christian books had a prominent place on the shelves and they sold well.

Bookshop as a Meeting Place

The change from Bible-shop to a big general bookshop also selling Christian literature was essential to the development. The bookshops turned into Meeting places where Muslims could find a pretext to get Christian literature. Since Wahhabis at the end of the 19th century became the dominating law school, Saudi Arabia had been the holy cradle of Islam. Here the Prophet was born, lived and had his revelations, here he died and was buried. So ‘infidels’ are not allowed to desecrate the country. Officially, the country is 100 % Muslim and Christians are rare in Saudi Arabia. By law everybody must follow Islam, attend Friday prayer, for instance, and failing to do so causes public punishment.

This provide background for the following incident. The bookshop in Bahrain had an image of Jesus on the wall. An old Arab looked at this through the windows. He entered the shop and asked, Is this the Messiah? The bookseller answered, Yes, do you know about him? The old Arab got the image, kissed it for a long time and said: We are several Christians in my village, nobody knows about it, and of course we have to follow prayers in the Mosque. However, we stand together, join hands and pray to Jesus. We read the Bible together once a week and listen to Arab services from Voice of the Gospel in Ethiopia. Christians in the village of the old Arab may have been part of one of the very old Christian congregations, earlier spread all over the Arabian Peninsula and able to trace their story back to the pre-Islamic period. The incident shows continuous existence of these Christian ‘pockets’ in Saudi Arabia.

FBG obtained permission by the authorities to set up a bookshop in the new international airport of Bahrain. And this turned out to be an important meeting place for large numbers of pilgrims, travelling to and from the holy cities Mecca and Medina.

A Sultan passed by

The new bookshop in Manama, Bahrain, was set up in a garage belonging to the Mission Hospital. Opening taking place on 15 March 1969, had about 350 prominent attendants and was carried out by the Information Minister of Bahrain, Sheikh Isa bin Muhammad Al Khalifah. Eventually, it developed to a two-story shop taking 70,000 books. The bookshop was located on the boulevard linking palace of the Sultan to the international Airport. One day in 1973, a large motorcade stopped outside the bookshop. Sheikh Isa bin Sulman Al Khalifah and his visitor, the Sultan of Abu Dhabi got off their cars. They headed for the bookshop, viewed both floors with the stocks, and left again without a word. In the evening, an official brought a message from the Sultan of Abu Dhabi. He wanted FBG to place a similar bookshop in Abu Dhabi, one of the most restricted Muslim states in the Gulf. Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen visited Abu Dhabi to negotiate terms of opening the bookshop. This open invitation had no restriction to Christian literature in various languages. With no other big bookshops in Abu Dhabi, implementation of the FBG objectives had the best conditions. In 1974, the shop opened – from 1977 with Finn Jensen as the leader.

Registration as Limited Company

The bookshop work increased. Wealth in the Gulf grew rapidly as did development of education and needs for literature. Several foreigners, Americans and Europeans among others, were potential customers in the book-shops. At the same time, the period was very sensitive as to world politics. The last armed conflict between Israel and the Arab countries involved the oil in order to get Western countries more kindly disposed to Arabs. The big Arab countries cut down production of oil causing rather serious consequences to the West. The con-flict was no longer an internal Arab-Israel affair, it was global. World was entering the period of globalization.

This political development influenced the bookshop work. Part of the concept was that every single shop and the total group were self-supporting and preferable profitable. This made a reproach from local members possible, that the mission societies exploited the Gulf states, still among developing countries at that time. Lack of language proficiency was another vulnerability. The shops appeared mainly as Western shops with English books and an English service. Keeping up with Arabic education of Western missionaries or local staff had not been possible. This signaled new or cultural imperialism at a time with a growing anti-Western attitude in the region.

From the early 1970’s, an effort was taken together with the Near East Council of Churches (NECC – now: Middle East Council of Churches, MECC) to give the bookshop group Arab ownership. After discussions for some years, in 1975 the involved parties agreed to form a limited company. DMS and RCA got 40 percent each of the shares, NECC 20 percent, and the office was registered in Beirut, Lebanon. The new Board of Directors acknowledged the objectives of FBG from 1968 (see above) and added the following:

  • open bookshops in Lebanon and all countries in Middle East
  • offer training programs for employees in sale of books
  • facilitate activities considering educational, social and recreational needs
  • encourage writers and translators within the area of publication
  • deal with all modern forms of information and facilitate other business activities.
  • join and work together with similar companies

After seven years, the two founding mission societies should hand over their shares to NECC, from 1982 sole agency of the bookshop group.

Beirut, Libanon. A gathering in the Bookshop auspices. 1973. From left: Andre Geha, MECC – Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen, DMS – (NN). From right: Hugh Thomas, FBG – (NN) – John Buteyn, RCA.

Participants at the first meeting to establish the Family Bookshop Group in 1973 were Dr John E. Buteyn (RCA), Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen (DMS) and Secretary General A. Istereo (NECC) together with Director of the NECC Literature Department, Hugh C. Thomas. He took over as coordinator when DMS appointed Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen as mission secretary in January 1974. The objectives of RCA from 1966, to make the small bookshops in Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman financial self-supplying, were achieved at establishment of FBG in 1973. Future objectives within the next few years were to open shops in Iran, Oman, Alexandria, Aleppo, the Arab Emirates, and Khartoum. From 1974, Leif Munksgaard became head of the new bookshop in Iran.

Arab loyalty

The year, FBG registered as an independent company, political destabilization in the region due to the Arab-Israeli conflict resulted in civil war in Lebanon (1975-90). For safety reasons, FBG moved headquarters from Beirut to Nicosia in Cypress, (a temporary measure, still in force). Because of the big and rapid changes in the Middle East during these years, the FBG Board acknowledged following business conditions in December 1980:

Family Bookshop Group is aiming at identification with struggles and endeavors of people in the Middle East; especially at participation in the continued presence of Christians in the region; and at witness bearing to the Christian values of peace, justice and uprightness by,

  • Encouraging understanding between Christians and Muslims
  • Encouraging the Christian churches of the region to renew witness and service to the individual, the family, life in the congregation, and to strengthen Christian leadership
  • Acknowledging and developing the unity between the Christian churches
  • Sharing and strengthening the witness and service of the Church to society.

The subsequent demands on Family Bookshop Group are,

  • A sensible approach to political, social, and financial conditions in the region
  • An acknowledgement of the fact that especially Christians in the Middle East are affected by imprudent Christian witness
  • A common vision for the role of FBG in the region

Family Bookshop Group consequently must continue development of flexible structures, facilitating a varied Christian witness to meet local needs and possibilities within the structure of a financial sustainable business and considering the original objectives of FBG.

RCA and DMS transferring the FBG shares to MECC, 1982. Left to right: PR Manager Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen, DMS – Secretary General Gabriel (Gabby) Habib, MECC – The Middle East Secretary John Buteyn, RCA – (NN).

The business terms show how Christians in the Middle East had to walk a tightrope in the political sensitive situation with Arab, not only Muslim, but just as well Christian, self-understanding at stake. As the conflict in the Middle East froze, an Arab criticism increased aiming at Christians, dividing their loyalty due to connections to the strong World Church – and hereby to the West, and seen by the Arabs more and more as the ally of Israel. This is background of the clear statement from the FBG Board of Directors in December 1980. Christians in the Middle East could not express their Arab loyalty clear enough.


Ten years after FBG registered as an independent Arab corporation, the Board of Directors asked Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen to evaluate the bookshop group. The report shows that FBG had ownership in six of eight working countries, that sales figures for Christian Arab literature did not take up much space, and that the concept of literature diaconia was difficult to maintain. Literature prevailed over diaconia, one of the reasons being that success of the bookshop group resulted in employment of missionaries with limited language skills. Nor did sufficient Arab Christians receive education to run the bookshops, and eventually other than Christian Arabs became leaders of the shops.

Re-establish Attempt and Sale            

The Christian identity of FBG weakened the following years. This gave place to other Christian bookshops in the region. In the 1990’s this development increased, and the directors of MECC found that FBG’s time as a Christian bookshop group in the Middle East was over. In early 2000’s FBG was put up for sale. After a visit to former working areas of DMS in February 2002, the Danmission Secretary General Mogens Kjær and Consultant Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen could report on actual conditions of the bookshop group, and the wish to sell the group in order to release churches in the Middle East from financial responsibility for the shops.

The Danmission Board doubted, whether renewed support to the evangelizing aim of the bookshop work was relevant, and asked Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen to explore a potential future involvement together with various international mission societies, ready to join and finance the re-establishment.

Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen discussed the matter with different parties, and in early 2003 a group around an American ecumenical mission society, Strategy Resource Group (SRG), found the necessary money to buy and carry on FBG in line with the objectives at registration in 1975. Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen recommended Danmission to join these parties. However, in March 2003, Danmission wanted further information before deciding on a sale. They recommended SRG to continue using Jørgen Nørgaard Pedersen as adviser and wanted to be briefed on the development. During 2003 several meetings took place between SRG and MECC, apparently leading to a sale. Final negotiations, however, were postponed several times, and at a meeting in Beirut on 10 February  2004, MECC announced their choice of another buyer. No reason was given, and the parties around SRG were very disappointed – they had hoped for a revival of this important way of evangelism in the Middle East.

Extracts of book by Harald Nielsen (in Danish): ‘TÅLMODIGHED FORPLIGTER – 9 kapitler af Danmissions islamhistorie’

Translation Marianne Boisen

Read the original text (in Danish) here

View more photos from East Arabia here


Harald Nielsen (1946). Master of Theology 1975. Secretary General in DMS/Danmission, 1996-2002.
Islam secretary and later leader of the Danmission Dialogue Team, 2002-2010. Author the of book, in Danish: Tålmodighed forpligter – 9 kapitler af Danmissions Islamhistorie, Unitas 2005.

Rev. dato: 24. August 2018
Rettelser eller tilføjelser sendes til fotoarkiv@danmission.dk