December 2011

Muammar Gaddafi and Seventh-day Adventism

Muhammad Idris bin Muhammad al-Mahdi as-Senussi, known simply as Idris, was born in the country now known as Libya sometime around 1890—the precise date of his birth a matter of dispute.  Heir to leadership of a powerful Muslim Sufi order, Idris led a sustained and vigorous campaign to overthrow Italian rule in Libya.  Ultimately successful in 1951, he was the primary architect of the termination of four decades of colonization by the European power and that year ascended to the kingship of a newly independent Libya.  Idris would prove to be an exceptionally gracious and kind monarch to Seventh-day Adventists.

In February 1955, Dr. Roy S. Cornell, an Adventist physician, arrived in Libya to offer his much needed skills as chief surgeon at the government hospital in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city after its capitol, Tripoli, a bustling commercial port city on the Northern Coast on the Mediterranean Sea.  Prior to Cornell’s arrival, the Adventist presence in Libya had been virtually non-existent, with only a few literature evangelists selling Adventist publications in the Italian colony in the late 1920s.

Cornell, however, aimed to establish a Seventh-day Adventist presence in the newly independent nation, endeavoring to accomplish this feat by the time honored Adventist method of gaining an entrance through health, which was his chosen profession.

So shortly after his arrival Cornell began supervising the remodeling of a war-damaged hotel building in Benghazi with the aim of renovating it for the site of an Adventist hospital. The versatile expatriate physician drew up papers; transacted fiscal deals; forged political connections; purchased equipment; and arranged for a staff, all while serving as surgeon and advisor to the Libyan government on medical matters.

The modest Adventist hospital was formally opened on May 21, 1956, with a patient capacity of approximately 27.  Articles appeared in the Adventist Review heralding the missiological wonder with titles like “The Right Arm of the Gospel in Libya.” Tragically though, a year later Dr. Cornell contracted acute paralytic poliomyelitis, which left him completely paralyzed and unable to continue directing the project he had pioneered.

The medical facility was operated by the Nile Union Mission, until, at the end of 1958, it came under the direct control of the Middle East Division (MED).  This by itself was a miracle, for even during the reign of Idris, the Libyan government did not permit foreign organizations to hold titles to property.  This Seventh-day Adventist hospital was renowned for being the sole exception to this law.

Around this time, Libya was wildly prospering thanks to the discovery of what seemed to be unlimited oil reserves, propelling the North African state from one of the poorest nations in the world to the wealthiest.  This oil revolution would be a boon and bane for Adventism: a boon because the oil money largely financed a new hospital plant; a bane because it was this turn of fortune that would spell Idris’ downfall and the end of royal patronage.

But by 1963 minor construction at the Adventist hospital provided for expanded laboratory and kitchen facilities and increased the patient capacity from 27 to 32. However, already by late 1961, because of the need for expanded medical services, the MED decided to relocate the hospital to a more advantageous location in the port city.

Providentially, a member of the royal family made available for purchase 10 acres of choice property. Community support was enlisted, and oil companies operating in the area contributed $750,000. Construction on the project began in 1964.

In its New Year edition of 1969, The Middle East Messenger, the official magazine of the Middle East Division, proudly reported on the cover, “It’s Open.”

The brand new Benghazi Adventist Hospital was a 60-bed facility, valued at $1.4 million US dollars.  On January 17, 1968, it was dedicated, with Adventist dignitaries attending the joyous event, including F.L. Bland, vice president of the General Conference—a towering figure in black Adventist history, the representative of the General Conference on that day—and MED president, Frederick C. Webster.

Omar Giouda, Libya’s minister of health, gave the keynote address at the high occasion, and his gracious talk was punctuated by a royal gift of $25,000 U.S. dollars, courtesy of King Idris. With this auspicious start, the hospital was opened the next day and patients flooded in. 

The human interest behind this landmark episode in the history of Seventh-day Adventism, and specifically African Adventism and Middle East/Arab Adventism, is touching.  Benghazi Adventist Hospital’s 105 employees, an expatriate staff, consisting of 48 families and single workers hailing from all parts of the globe, were the picture of the Adventist sacrificial mission ethos that marked the 1950s and 60s.

A couple of these pioneers are worth mentioning.  Two women from Seoul, Korea, Oh Hey Jah, 26, and Jo Chung Jah, 25, were nursing graduates from what is today Sahmyook University, and were the first Korean Adventists to be assigned to an overseas hospital. Hey Jah specialized in surgical nursing; Chung Jah was a general duty nurse.

Ellen Lorenz, at the time a nursing student at what is now Washington Adventist University, was the first Adventist student missionary to be assigned to the Middle East.  Other medical missionaries hailed from the Philippines, Indonesia, India, and the Middle East.

These expatriate missionaries were the only Seventh-day Adventists in Libya.  The Benghazi Adventist Hospital was destined to be a successful example of the health message being the entering wedge for the presentation of the three angels’ messages.

Only months after the grand opening, the hospital was graced by King Idris, who stopped by to check on close relatives being treated there.  The ruler could not praise the facility enough.  Soon Benghazi Adventist Hospital had the reputation for not only being the best hospital in Libya, but all of North Africa.

However, this golden opportunity to plant Adventism in a strategic locale would be tragically interrupted by political upheavals.

King Idris, so accommodating to Seventh-day Adventists, was falling in general popularity in Libya.  Because it was believed that he was shamelessly hording the dizzying profits from the oil boom; maintaining friendly relations with the United States and England; lax in enforcing Islamic laws; and not propounding the Arab nationalism popular during the era, he was castigated by the growing anti-West, radical Islamic factions in the region, most loudly by a charismatic 27 year old soldier named Muammar Gaddafi.

Political foment percolated in Libya, birthing the so-called “Libyan Revolution” on September 1, 1969, in which the strongman Gaddafi staged a successful and bloodless coup, grasping leadership of the nation easily from the hands of Idris, who at the time was away in Turkey for medical treatment.

Gaddafi, notorious for bursting into discotheques and nightclubs with machine guns, scattering the revelers and closing the venue, saw fit to quench the light that was Benghazi Adventist Hospital.  On November 23, 1969, the new Revolutionary Command Council, whose policy required that all medical services be owned and administered by the government, nationalized the Benghazi Adventist Hospital.

The Adventist Review of January 15, 1970, disconsolately reported that the staff of Benghazi Hospital would be assigned to other posts in the Middle East Division, and Gaddafi, who vowed to remunerate Adventists for the seized hospital, would negotiate with SDA administrators for a fair price.

In 1977 the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists received a settlement from the Libyan government for $1,290,963, for the Benghazi Hospital. 

With the nationalization of the hospital and the departure of the medical missionaries, the short lived Adventist presence in Libya departed.  At present, more than four decades later, there is not a Seventh-day Adventist church in Libya, or a known Seventh-day Adventist.

Will death of Muammar Gaddafi on October 10, 2011, and the transfer of power signal a new day for Adventism in Libya?  

-Benjamin Baker