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A death in Dohuk: Roger C. Cumberland, mission and politics among the Kurds in Northern Iraq, 1923-1938.


Presbyterian missionary Reverend Roger C. Cumberland was murdered in Dohuk, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, in June 1938. One eulogy remarked tersely, "... this is just another in the long line of martyrdoms that come to those who go into the hard places to witness by word and life to the love of God in Christ." (1) No matter how true that statement may be, it is quite inadequate for the man and his life. Cumberland, one of the pioneer mission workers in this region after World War I, served at a pivotal time in the formation of the modern Middle East, most particularly at the birth of the state of Iraq. Historical records are usually macro-level accounts of the large political, social, economic, and cultural events as interpreted after the passage of some period of time. However, another level of insight is achieved by observing how ordinary people experienced and were impacted by the large events. When available, these contemporary first-hand accounts, unfettered by historians' later hindsight, add a dimension of understanding. Roger Cumberland provides an example as he left a body of descriptive, remarkably astute, and candid letters that provide a rich source on his work among the Kurds and commentary on other aspects of the day. (2) He and his peers were the predecessors of today's generation of mission workers who face the same ethnic and religious factions, frustrations, opportunities, challenges, and dangers in many ways little changed from more than 75 years ago. Then as today the essential questions were whether a national state of Iraq would prevail against the many challenges, the role of Kurdistan in that state, and the fate of the Christian church in the environment.

The twenty-eight year-old Ventura, California native Cumberland, a 1922 graduate from McCormick Theological Seminary, arrived in Iraq in April 1923 to begin his work as a Presbyterian missionary. (3) He disembarked from the British ship The City of Harvard at Basra in the south with fellow passengers whom he described as "a motley gang: travelers, explorers, authors, those headed for home, with a majority of missionaries," but his ultimate station was in Mosul and later in Dohuk. He served for fifteen years primarily among the Kurds, and he became highly esteemed by the various populations in the area. (4)


Bom from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the State of Iraq became a British mandate in 1920. The country, its borders the product of the convenience of the European colonial powers, was never a coherent or logical national entity under the Ottomans or at any point afterward. The area had a long and rich history from Sumerian Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigress and Euphrates rivers declared by historians as the cradle of civilization, through many empires. The various empires--Akkadians, Elamites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and others all--left remnants of their peoples, cultures, and religions. The Romans introduced Christianity between the first and third centuries and Islam arrived in the seventh century. Indeed, the fourth caliph, Ali, moved the capital of the Islamic empire to Kufa (Iraq). Over the centuries, Mongols, Turkmen, Circassians, Armenians, Kurds, and a host of other peoples joined the ethnic mix, and the diverse religious constituency included Sunni and Shia Muslims, Zoroastrians, Yezidis, Druze, and Roman and Eastern Christians. Most of the ethnic and/or religious communities existed in tension with each other.

Protestant evangelical work in the Near East is often dated from 1812 when several groups began exploring the idea of missionary stations. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, a joint operation of Presbyterian, Reformed Church in America, and Congregationalists, began work in Smyrna for Anatolia in 1819, Beirut for Syria and Palestine in 1823, and Urumia in Persia in 1835. In 1841 eight missionaries from the organization established the Eastern Syria Mission at Mosul. The searing heat, disease, lack of medical care, and absence of any support infrastructure made life precarious. Five of the original eight died in the five years before the station closed. A new group of eight people arrived in 1850 primarily to minister to the Syrian Orthodox community but to work with other groups as well and to reach out to Muslims. The Mosul Church, with eight members, was founded in 1851. Conditions remained harsh and challenging and included local opposition to foreigners and persecution of "evangelicals" as Protestants were known. In 1860, the Eastern Syria Mission merged into the broader Eastern Turkey Mission with a physical presence in Mosul only during the cooler months. In 1890, twelve American Presbyterian personnel, under the Board of Foreign Missions (PCUSA), began yet another mission in the area of Mosul and Kurdistan with largely the same results as previous efforts. Two children died, many of the adults suffered serious illnesses, the severe heat and rigorous living conditions remained, and corrupt local officials forbid the missionaries to construct buildings on land that they had purchased. In 1898, once again the Iraq mission was suspended. Mosul had earned the name, "the missionaries' graveyard." (5)

Various European and American-based denominations started other missions in the first years of the twentieth century, but results were meager. In 1924 in order to expand activity in central and northern Iraq, the Presbyterian Church, USA, the Reformed Church in America (RCA), and the Reformed Church in the United States, which soon merged with the Evangelical Church to become the Evangelical and Reformed Church, joined forces in the new United Mission in Mesopotamia (UMM), whose name was changed to United Mission to Iraq (UMI) in 1935. The Reformed Church in America continued its mission in Basra and southern Iraq, where it had been engaged since 1889. The UMM's eleven missionaries' work centered in three Arabic schools (a boys school in Baghdad and girls schools in both Baghdad and Mosul) and on missions to the Assyrian and Kurdish tribes in the north. By 1929 the number of UMM personnel had grown to nineteen, but the onset of the global Great Depression of the 1930s and the resultant decline in financial support ended expansion. The sweeping political changes in the region, the increasing hostility to foreigners, and the increased violence discouraged new missionaries from arriving to replace those who departed. The United Mission personnel referred to the years from 1933 to 1941 as "the era of difficulties," and it was during this time that Cumberland was killed at his home in Dohuk. (6)

Cumberland, as one of his professors at McCormick succinctly stated, was "an exceptional man," blessed with "fine ability and spirit who took his place of leadership almost from the first in the Seminary." Another commentator responded, "Fine personality, refined, attractive, cheerful, and energetic and works well with others. Good business habits and careful with money. Well rounded accomplishments. Leader, possess resourcefulness and a strong character, good mentality....spiritual life well developed." Cumberland described himself as a man of the West bom in the deserts east of Los Angeles, "The blood of the pioneer is in me. I love the frontier." He took a year off between prep school and college to work on a farm, and between his junior and senior years in college, he served as a Field Artillery officer in the U.S. Army. Although he was opposed to war, he answered the call in September 1917 and eagerly sought to go to Europe, but was disappointed that the war ended before he made it. However, this disappointment only furthered his desire to be on the front lines, now in the missionary field. During seminary he was president of the Chicago Student Volunteer Union, which focused on international missions. He aspired to go to Afghanistan "because it was the hardest place I could see. Moreover, such a place is very attractive to one who is a frontiersman by nature." Since Afghanistan was not open for missionary activity at the time, he was dispatched instead to the mountains of Kurdistan. (7) Most of the story that follows is drawn from the pen of Cumberland as detailed in his letters.


The brief glimpses that he shared about the voyage bringing him to Basra, including the beauty of the Shat-al-Arab lined by stately date palm trees for which the area was famous, demonstrated that Cumberland had a sense of adventure and an eye for detail that would characterize all his writings. At Basra he met the legendary pioneer missionaries Dr. John Van Ess (RCA) and Presbyterian Frederick G. Coan. Cumberland remarked that the 24-hour, 360mile "flyer" train trip to Baghdad, along with Coan who was returning to Persia where he had served since 1885, passed pleasantly with the engaging missionary relating many good stories. (8)

Cumberland took up his new position in Mosul on April 14, where he joined fellow young bachelor missionaries Edwin Wright and James Willoughby, two friends from the last year at McCormick Seminary, in a large house that was occupied also by three families of refugees, servants, and the mission's four horses. Although Cumberland had not ridden since his days in the Army artillery, he adapted quickly to this mode of travel and he became quite proud of his horsemanship. The names of the horses exhibited a sly humor. The original horses were named Mustapha Kemal Pasha, after the founder of postwar modern Turkey, and Sheikh el Islam. The mission purchased two new horses and named them Malek Tawooz, after the Yezidi Satanic deity, and Sultan Abdul Hamid, the last Ottoman sultan. (9)

Cumberland's first taste of the religious diversity of the area was an invitation to attend a Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Christian Church wedding, which he found to be "grand opera" characterized by a great deal of ritual and periodic load clashing cymbals that made his ears ring. (10) Even more exotic was his first introduction to the Yezidis, a syncretic religion that incorporated elements of Islam, Sufism, Zoroastrianism, and local Kurdish practices. (11) Cumberland and Wright attended a ceremony for the anniversary of the founding of a nearby Yezidi village. Cumberland described the colorful dress, music, endless dancing from early morning until the evening without stop, and lamentations. He noted that "the freedom of the Yezidi women is very surprising for the Orient." (12) In his future associations with Kurds and Yezidi, who were ethnically the same people but considered themselves very different species, Cumberland would learn that the women of both groups were not sequestered but hardly free in any real sense.

These experiences were but the beginning of the adventurous and physically tough young missionary's quest to meet, engage, and understand the peoples and cultures of the region. His early letters describe trips and hunting expeditions to Assyrian and Kurdish villages in the mountains north of Mosul that he called "the real Kurdistan." He was captivated by the beauty of the high mountains, the wild rivers, the rugged terrain, and the hospitality of both the Assyrian and the Kurd tribal villages. The two peoples had a long violent history against each other that had been exacerbated in recent years by Assyrian refugees moving into traditional Kurdish areas. The region may well have been in dispute between Turkey and the new Arab Iraq, but the reality was that no one really controlled the untamed mountains and peoples. Besides his contacts with the tribes, Cumberland also met some of the other players in the political environment, including the Patriarch of the Nestorian Church, the American Consul Thomas Owens, and an official with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, all of whom he reported enjoying traveling with in the area. (13)

His best early adventure was a three-month trek in the mountains with his comrade Ed Wright, who explained that during the entire trip "neither of us had a bed, a shave, a chair to sit on, nor a table." One highlight on a separate trip was a visit to Lalish in August 1923 to visit the tomb of Sheikh Adi, the most sacred shrine of the Yezidis. Cumberland commented that the religion appeared to be "little more than a conglomeration of charms and tabus" that included veneration of "the pool where Sheikh Adi bathed once--apparently for the whole race," kissing various places in the temple at the shrine, and "Apart from the promiscuous osculation the principal method of worship seems to be burning olive oil." The group continued on to Baadri, the village of Said Beg, the chief leader of the all the Yezidis, whom Cumberland characterized as "noted mostly for being drunk all the time." The chief was away at another village for the day, but the group was afforded great hospitality at his castle on the top of a mountain. (14)

Returning to Mosul after the lengthy absence, Cumberland reported that while away he had heard rumors about a revolution in Mosul. He noted that he could not get the story straight about just what had happened, but five or six people had been killed and several others injured. He asked his family if the events had been covered in America, and he assured them that he perceived no danger for himself. The event that he spoke about was the so-called Barzanji Revolt, an ongoing uprising against the British from November 1922 until July 1924, typical of the explosive political dynamics in the area. (15) On another matter, Sir Henry Dobbs, British High Commissioner, visited Mosul in September to try to negotiate peace between the warring Assyrians, Arabs, and Kurds by encouraging Assyrians to return to their traditional villages. Cumberland observed that it would be good if this happened because "the whole Assyrian nation is a thorn in the side of the Arab." [and not mentioned Kurds] (16)

With the official founding of the UMM, Cumberland's mission soon became more focused. Ed Wright, who had come to Mosul on temporary assignment, returned to Persia in the fall of 1923. Dr. and Mrs. Edmund W. McDowell, veteran Anglican missionaries who for several years had lived in villages working with mountain Assyrians, arrived in Mosul in March 1924 with intent to turn the field work in the villages over to younger colleagues. A young couple, Reverend and Mrs. A.G. Edwards also joined the team in Mosul. With a large task among many constituencies, a certain degree of specialization emerged. Dr. McDowell, who had been in the region since 1887, was one of the pioneer workers with the Yezidis and Assyrians and he was fluent in Syriac. James Willoughby and the Edward's studied Arabic for general work, and the Edward's later moved south to Hillah among the Shia population. Several members concentrated on educational work in schools. His "adventurous spirit" and "rugged energy" led Cumberland to focus on the Kurds, whose language be had been working on almost from his arrival. He loved nothing better than being in the field. As a commentator remarked, "He made long trips among their villages, living with the people, eating their food, sleeping under their roofs, learning their language, winning their confidence, and establishing Christian centers among them wherever possible." (17) Cumberland's letters recounted many of these adventures.

Beyond his letters, Cumberland several times wrote reflectively about the conditions and the people in the region. In one undated pamphlet, he remarked, "Not that the people here are different from others; they are essentially the same as unregenerate humanity anywhere." However, their physical plight was dire.
   Disease is rampant; trachoma and malaria are especially
   prevalent. The people are not organized in any adequate
   way; there is no strong social structure. A blind fatalism is
   common to all religions, so far as practice shows belief, and
   the people are consequently hopelessly improvident. They
   contract debts, at exorbitant rates of interest (30 and 40 per
   cent), for 'whatever is in the future will be, anyway, so let us
   do the easiest thing at the moment'....

   As a whole, the rural problem in this country is a difficult
   one, yet upon its solution depends the welfare and progress
   of the nation. With the Gospel of Christ as foundation, and
   the excellent technique that has been developed by experts,
   a solution is certainly possible. But the laying of this
   foundation and the application of this technique will drag
   slowly so long as only the present personnel and the meager
   means at their disposal are all that is available to this end. (18)


Although the mission team in Mosul was no longer under the West Persia Mission of the Presbyterian Church, headquartered in Urumia in northwestern Persia, the Urumia office invited the Mosul group to send a representative to the annual meeting to be held in August 1924. As Cumberland related, "the lure of the road was too much for me, and as modestly as possible, I volunteered to serve in that capacity." The rest of the group assented and requested that he return in two months if possible. Cumberland chose not to take the normal route that consisted of a combination of trains, automobile, wagon, and a ship across the Urumia Lake. On July 24, he set out on his trusty horse, Sultan, on what would become a great adventure. (19)

In a lengthy letter written a couple of months after his return to Mosul, the masterful storyteller portrayed in great detail the beauty and arduousness of the trip, the colorful individuals met along the way, and his insight into the religious and political environment of the region. Highlights included a three-day stop at the Lutheran Orient Mission station at Saujbulagh, Persia (modern day Mahabad), where a young female Lutheran missionary joined him for the remaining trip to attend the conference. (20) At the end of his long trip, Cumberland was felled by malaria within hours of arrival and missed most of the first week of the events. Even with this inauspicious beginning, Cumberland found the conference exceedingly valuable, as he expressed, to witness how a well-organized mission station functioned and "to sit day by day with those of mature experience as they considered their problems was an education for me, and to know them and the genuine goodness of their lives was an inspiration." (21)

At the conclusion of the annual meeting, Cumberland accepted the invitation of his fellow adventurer Ed Wright to join him as Wright took the six-day ride around the top of Urumia Lake to return to his assignment at the other West Persia station at Tabriz. Others traveling to Tabriz took the more "civilized way" by boat and train; however, two other missionaries joined the ride and Cumberland reported the adventures of this trip and the days in Tabriz as "One unending round of pleasure!" He explained that "About ten of us were young and unattached, and none of the older ones had forgotten how to be good sports." (22)

Leaving Tabriz, Cumberland and three companions returned to Saujbulagh where Cumberland got a better look at the work done there and forged a bond with the Lutheran missionaries. (23) Then he headed south alone to visit the Presbyterian station and school at Hamadan. In unfamiliar territory without knowledge of local languages, the young missionary at times hired local guides and at other times rode by himself. As he reflected, "... my love for the open road does not seem to depend on the company." One of his guides was "a good natured rascal" who smoked two or three pipes of opium at every stop, talked incessantly in Persian, and when approaching a village announced that his companion was "a great noble, for whom the very best accommodations must be secured." Both in the Urumia area and on the southern journey, Cumberland noted the many destroyed and deserted villages devastated from the war and the various ethnic ravages. (24)

In his travels during the several months, Cumberland was thankful for the various Christian missionaries along the way. At numerous points he was assisted by either missionaries or locals who had been influenced by missionary schools. Reoccurring malaria continued to plague him. At Kermanshah, he was too weak to travel for three weeks. His friends advised him to sell his horse and return to Mosul by car and train, but Cumberland was not about to part with his beloved Sultan. On the road again, a final malaria bout forced a few days stay in Kingeraban, Iraq, with the construction superintendent of the Baghdad-Khaniqin RR. After 110 days absent from Mosul, 55 days of which were on the road, and an estimated 1430 miles traveled, Cumberland returned to Mosul in mid-November, 1924. (25)


He had much to do upon return. As he related, "The affairs of our Mosul school were in somewhat of a tangle--nothing new!" which required "a good deal of time in discussion." Moreover, Ismail Beg, a local Yezidi chief, wanted a mission school founded at his home village at Sinjar. Despite Cumberland's earlier disparaging characterization of Said Beg, he referred to Ismael Beg as "one of the most forward-looking men in the whole country." As Cumberland reported, "Although illiteracy is a tenet of the Yezidi religion, imposed on all except a certain family, and the others oppose education, and Ismail Beg himself cannot read or write, he is an ardent champion of learning." Beg's eldest son attended the Mosul school prior to continuing his education in Baghdad. Much more surprising, Beg convinced the McDowell family to adopt temporarily his eight-year old daughter Wansa [whom Cumberland calls Lucia] to educate her at the mission schools. The idea of an educated Yezedi girl was revolutionary. Cumberland reported that Ismail Beg's desire for the advancement of his people was not entirely altruistic as the chief had a vision of the power and prestige that would be bestowed upon him by his efforts. Because a government school existed and the Mission had no funds for a Christian school, Cumberland was forced to recommend against establishing the new school, but he added with a touch of his sardonic wit:
   We are earnestly hoping and praying that his [Beg's] desire
   may be turned away from temporal pomp and power, and to
   the things that are unseen and eternal; that he may seek first
   the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and that all
   these other things may be safely added to him. And, at any
   rate, we are grateful for one man in a most benighted race
   who is looking for something better. (26)

Cumberland noted that King Faisal came to Mosul in December to declare that Mosul would remain under Iraq, which Cumberland hoped would in fact be the case when the League of Nations boundary commission arrived in late January, 1925 to make its report. As he explained, as best that he could discern their views, the Kurds primarily wanted an end to the continuing ethnic violence in the area and to live their lives. They tended to favor English rule.
   No one wants Iraq without the English. The mollahs and
   sheikhs want Turkey, because they think that England, a
   Christian power, will remain dominant in Iraq, and they wish
   to be under a Moslem power. (This, of course, is based on
   a large amount of ignorance regarding the religious--or
   rather irreligious--attitude of the new Turkey.) Of the rest,
   those who want a free hand to work at the trade of
   freebooting want the Turks; and most of the people are not
   concerned about it at all. (27)

Cumberland added that he hoped that the League commission would bring about a permanent solution that would allow displaced Assyrians to return to their ancestral homes. The Assyrian Christians seemed to be the target of all other parties. The Turks had systematically massacred them and in September 1924 again had driven them from their homes to which many had returned after exile in the spring. Many Assyrians took refuge in villages and even caves around Mosul. They were destitute, received scant government assistance, and when cold and snow descended in January, many perished. Violence was also prevalent between Assyrians and their Arab and Kurd neighbors.

Visitors to Mosul in early 1925 included a Scottish Seventh Day Adventist who proselyted to try to draw away members of the small Protestant community. A series of discussions with the missionary resulted in Cumberland's pronouncement that "our congregation were strengthened in our position and in our earnestness in proclaiming the true evangel." (28) On a larger scale, this incident demonstrated the difference between the various missionaries on the ground. One orientation stressed proselytizing for conversions both of Assyrians to Protestantism, but also of Muslims to Christianity. Cumberland and the UMM certainly desired to bring the Gospel to Muslims but conversion was not the exclusive or even primary goal. They focused on living among the people to "reflect the face of God." As Cumberland explained, the Muslim Kurds were not open to evangelization. What would happen would be in God's time. Cumberland noted that schools and medical missions had a decided impact on Muslims. In his words, "To me, simply living among them and showing them something better than what they have that can be had 'without money and without price,' perhaps helping them in methods of cultivating their crops, and certainly speaking the Word in due season, seems the best approach." As for conversion of the Kurds "He [the Lord] must bring them for He alone can. And in His fold there is a place, also for these wild mountaineers." He noted that his Scottish colleague Dr. McDowell compared the Kurds to the rough and rugged Scotsmen "freebooters" of earlier centuries, and Cumberland predicted, "The day of the Kurdish [John] Knox seems far distant, but it will come." (29)

More interesting was the arrival of Dr. Edward Chiera, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who had served the past year as head of the American School of Archeology in Baghdad. After archaeological digs at Ur of the Chaldees and Kish, the noted Assyriologyist came to Mosul and asked Cumberland to show him the northern part of the country. The professor wanted "to rough it," and Cumberland was more than willing to comply. Unfortunately, the professor had never ridden a horse so he had much to learn. Cumberland devoted many pages in his February 19 letter to friends and family to describe the adventure. The journey included visits to various Chaldean, Yezidi, and Kurdish villages and religious sites, some of which the adventurous missionary had not previously toured. (30) Cumberland enjoyed the professor's knowledge of antiquity and his command of ancient languages, and he admired his tough adaptability. Because Chiera had traveled from Baghdad on the train with the League boundary commission, this afforded an overture for lively discussions about the politics and possible future of the region. At the end of the trip, Cumberland stated that he gave the professor a diploma in equitation and the professor remarked, "You've ruined me. How can I go back to an office in a city and work over Sumerian dictionaries?" (31)


In an April 1926 letter to his mother, the young missionary transmitted several significant pieces of information. He reported that a departing couple sold him their Ford automobile at "a very reasonable price" and that he had purchased a thousand acres of Kurdish wilderness. In a process that took two years to complete, Cumberland acquired the primitive Assyrian village of Babillu, approximately ten miles east of Dohuk, apparently for approximately $500. He explained that "I am not a man of wealth, but I conjectured that the little property I do own would be more interesting, even if it did not bring more interest, out here where I am than tied up in bonds in the U.S.A." About the village, he remarked, "I expect it to be for me an excellent 'hobby' and an actual aid in the work of winning men to the Master as well." James Willoughby later reported that Cumberland's contribution in agricultural development and rural welfare in Babillu, which Cumberland envisioned as an example of Christian living, was a significant model. But more importantly in the letter, the 31-year-old bachelor announced that Miss Harriet Gunn had accepted his proposal of marriage. He had first met Harriet, the daughter of missionaries in China, in Los Angeles in 1922, and they renewed acquaintances when her family visited in Iraq the previous February. However, the ceremony would not likely occur until 1927 or 1928 when he could travel to Shanghai on route to the United States for home leave. (32)

Although the number of letters became fewer and farther apart after mid-1926, Cumberland's lengthy epistles to his family, friends, and supporters still focused on his travels since he admitted that "those times are the happiest and the easiest to talk about." Frustrations about limited financial support for missionary activity surfaced. Despite the religion's rejection of education, Yezidi leaders were appealing to him for schools, but funds were not available to comply. Cumberland lamented that Christians in America did not understand such missed opportunities. One brief reference also mentioned the beginning of oil drilling operations around Mosul that Cumberland hoped would bring material prosperity to the region. He added that most of the foreign staff came from California but that he had not yet visited the oil fields to find out how many people there he might know. As might be expected, many of Cumberland's letters now were to Harriet in Shanghai, and that correspondence does not appear to be extant. With the civil war becoming progressively worse in China and Shanghai a central target, the Gunns left China in late June 1927 to return to Manila where they had lived previously. Roger and Harriet were married there in October. (33)

Roger returned to Iraq working largely in Dohuk, a Kurdish town fifty miles north of Mosul. In early 1928, the Cumberland's returned to the United States for furlough and from their base in New York City, they traveled around the country visiting family, friends, and supporting church congregations. At the end of September, they returned to Mosul, where eight people lived in a large marble house. As Harriet explained in a November 1929 letter that summarized events of the past year, Roger, "Our 'senior member' belongs on the country roads much more than the administrative duties" in Mosul permitted. However, he was able to make a number of trips through the mountains that he loved. Harriet shared Roger's passion and his wit, "Traveling mountain trails on mule-back and sojourning in primitive mud or stone villages we find greatly preferable to playing the role of forlorn waiting wife in the marble hall of Mosul. (Besides, once when the man-of-the house went alone he got off his mule over the ears and dislocated his elbow!) (34)

Even though it was remote and living conditions considerably more primitive, the Cumberland's were excited to move to Dohuk to focus more fully on the Kurds. In the summer of 1929, Roger purchased land for a building, although it would be two and a half years before he received the title deed. In 1931 when the Cumberland's prepared to move to Dohuk, the Mission had no money to construct a dwelling. Since no suitable living accommodations existed in Dohuk, Roger proposed to use his own money to build a dwelling that the Mission would then rent from him as mission station. He planned to employ money that he had loaned to his sister and her husband in California to cover a mortgage until they could sell the property. However, the Depression made this difficult. Not wishing to cause hardship for his family, Roger dropped this plan and cancelled all interest payments on the loan. After some delay, the Cumberland's finally arrived in Dohuk in January 1932. "The Hut" as they called their new abode was rather simple and without the originally anticipated resources, it would be several years before they could initiate desired improvements and expansion. Laying the line himself, Roger managed to bring in running water through a pipe from a mountain stream a mile away and surplus water was provided to the neighborhood. (35) Proud of this accomplishment, he noted that "I am gratified that now an adequate supply is being arranged by Government." (36)

Cumberland declared that the world depression had not escaped Iraq where among other impacts, the supply of second-hand clothing that normally came from America and Europe had largely ceased. Following rather good grain harvests in 1930 and 1931, the bad 1932 crop brought severe hunger. The drying up of grass and water for the Bedouin tribes led to near starvation. When the government allowed the Bedouins to bring their camels into parts of the country that they normally did not enter, frictions ensued with the more settled Arab, Kurd, Assyrian, and Yezidi tribes. On a more positive note, Cumberland cited that oil development and an oil pipeline to Haifa and Tripoli promised prosperity for many in the country.


On the political situation, Cumberland explained that Iraq would attain its complete independence in the fall of 1932 with the end of the British mandate. Since the British were the basic instrument of security, he had grave concerns that the British withdrawal could lead to ethnic violence. And the Assyrian refugee problem was still not addressed. He lamented the death in 1933 of King Faisal, whom Cumberland called "a remarkable character, who, by the force of his personality, was able to control the rather heterogeneous forces of this young state." (37) Cumberland hoped that Faisal's successor, his son Ghazi, would be as able. Unfortunately, Ghazi was not, and the 1930s was a time of almost continuous unrest in the country. Reporting on his missionary work, Cumberland noted that the small attendance at church services was primarily Assyrians, although the previous Sunday it has been mostly Armenians. Few Muslims demonstrated any interest, but Cumberland believed that relationships with the Muslim community were improving and he had hopes eventually for a thriving Christian congregation in Kurdistan. (38)

To an Assyrian spokesmen's emotional call for special consideration for the Assyrians published in a journal that dealt with world-wide mission activity, Cumberland in April 1933 responded with his own opinion. As he had stated several times previously in his personal letters, he reiterated that the Assyrians' displacement by war from their traditional villages in Turkey and Persia was a tragedy, and the world community had inadequately addressed their refugee status. However, he contended that Assyrian leaders had not made wise choices. He pointed out that local Kurds and Arabs did not react well to the Assyrian appeals to Christian European nations for "special rights and privileges" that should take precedence over the plight of other peoples.

In his early days, Cumberland had called for the Assyrians to be returned to their home areas, but by 193 3 it was clear that this would not happen. His view at this point was that the Assyrians "welfare is bound up with the development of Iraq, in which they may have an important share if they co-operate as loyal Iraqis."As he said, during all his nine years in Iraq, his best friends in the country had been Assyrians, and "I yield to none in not only wishing, but also seeking, the welfare of the Assyrian people." However, "I not only make no sentimental pleas for their rescue, but also lay the principal blame for their present unhappy condition where it belongs: on themselves, and especially on their leaders." (39)

The issue extended beyond debate in August 1933 when some 400 Assyrians were killed in Semail, a Kurdish village a few miles from Dohuk, a place where Cumberland had spent considerable time in his work. Assyrians, Kurds, and Arabs had a long violent history with many atrocities. In 1933 a few hundred Assyrians rose up in rebellion in support of autonomy under their Patriarch, the exact practice that Cumberland had condemned. Fighting erupted with the Iraqi army in areas along the Turkey and Syria borders. Although this uprising was put down, violence continued between Arabs and Kurds with considerable looting against the Assyrians in outlying villages. The Iraqi government sent some Assyrians to Syria and others were resettled in villages in Kurdistan, which further inflamed local hostilities and violence. A number of Assyrian refugees were brought to Semail for their protection and their weapons were confiscated; in August a killing spree ensued. (40) With the potential for civil war against not only Assyrians but against all Christians and foreigners, the British Administrative Inspector, Lieutenant Colonel R.R. Stafford, telephoned Cumberland to bring his family from Dohuk to Mosul and later the missionaries were forced to locate to Baghdad. Cumberland observed that with temperatures of 116, "no one would choose Baghdad as a place for summer vacation." On the other hand, with many friends, British and American, in Baghdad, "the social whirl was probably a wholesome change for us from our sequestered life in Dohuk, and.... we found it a happy and profitable time." (41)

Despite his earlier critique of Assyrians' actions, Cumberland in an August 26 statement emphatically accused the Iraq Army of the massacre in Semail. "They were all without arms, and were shot down in cold blood by the army. Such an exhibition of stark savagery and frenzied fanaticism has seldom been seen." He testified that before he left Dohuk, innocent people [presumably Assyrians] had been taken from their homes and they had not been seen since. Moreover, the government's efforts to accuse Assyrians of being instigators of the violence brought discrimination against innocent Assyrians who were in no way involved. He added that "At Semail was proved what fanatical Islam and irresponsible Government are capable of, and it will not soon be forgotten." Cumberland allowed widows and orphans of the massacre to take refuge in his yard in Dohuk. His outspoken critique and humanitarian actions angered Iraqi government officials who accused Cumberland of political involvement and called for him to be removed from Dohuk. Eventually, Cumberland met with the Minister of the Interior, who pronounced it all a mistake and stated that the government hoped that he would continue his work in Dohuk. (42)

On furlough in the United States followed by a lengthy return via East Asia, Cumberland was out of the country for all of 1935. Thus he missed this turbulent year of almost continuous Shia uprisings against the Sunni-dominated central government. The violence, however, occurred primarily in central and southern Iraq with minimal impact on Kurdistan. The Cumberland's daughter Wendela "Wendy" was born during the leave in the United States. This was a particularly blessed event because the couple had lost two previous babies at birth or shortly afterwards in 1930 and 1931. (43) After a lengthy return trip that included a seven-week visit with Harriet's family in Manila, the Cumberland's arrived in Baghdad in February 1936 to attend the annual meeting. Although his area was not on the front burner, the church mission activity was definitely under threat in the larger country and conditions got much worse during the year. Following the meeting, Harriet and the baby remained in Baghdad while Roger took most of their belongings to Dohuk and spent six weeks in repairs and construction to get the house in order for his family's arrival. Unfortunately, their brand new Coleman gasoline stove was badly damaged in the trip and within a few days after Roger's arrival, many of their possessions (including Harriet's bridal dress and wedding gifts) were stolen from the storage room. Finally, by the end of April the family was reunited in Dohuk. (44)

During the last two years of Roger's life, the family's material circumstances improved. The living quarters gradually expanded, although Roger was not able to complete the full house that he envisioned. The family was pleased to acquire new furniture, some of which was brought from China on the trip home and the rest built by local carpenters. They traded in their old car for a slightly used 1936 Ford. Roger stressed in each case that the possessions had been acquired cheaply. Wendy brought great joy to their lives. However, the political environment impinged upon Roger's ability to perform his missionary role. Although his letters from the last two years dealt primarily with personal family matters, Roger commented on the November 1936 military coup in which a Kurd, General Bakr Sidqi, who had led the Semail Massacre in 1933, overthrew the prime minister and established himself as the ruling authority:

The recent turnover in government has not affected us so far; I look for this regime to be an improvement over the old one, tho [sic] the method of obtaining office is not what one would generally commend. But we are far from Baghdad, and go on as usual. What I'm looking for is voluntary improvement in the manner of life of the people around me, not a new code from Baghdad. (45)

Cumberland's optimism that political events would not affect his family and region was not born out. In August 1937 Sidiqi was assassinated in Mosul by other military factions and Nuri al-Said became the new prime minister with the country completely under military rule. The climate for missionaries became quite hostile. On May 10, 1938, while in Beirut for a meeting of the Near East Christian Council, Cumberland sent what would turn out to be his last mass-copy letter to family and supporters. He explained that it was better to do this outside Iraq because the ruling regime looked on this type of mailing with great suspicion and likely might confiscate it. He explained that "Almost all of our mail is opened, and a good deal of it 'lost'." Several incidents of intimidation and violence against local Muslim converts to Christianity occurred. In one instance, Cumberland reported that naively he attempted to intervene in behalf of a local teacher by writing a letter to the governor in Mosul expressing hope that the country's new law guaranteeing religious liberty would be applied. He received an angry retort that the governor "did not need my help in administering the law" and the teacher indeed was treated horrifically. Cumberland lamented that his involvement had made things worse for the man. Cumberland admitted that any government official who did attempt to adhere to the religious liberty law risked consequences because the populace did not agree with the law. (46)

Cumberland was discouraged about the situation and he wondered if he could hope to continue his work in Dohuk. He reported that the word had been put out in the community to boycott his Mission, "Our house is watched, and people that come to us are hauled up by the police and threatened--scared stiff, a good many of them." The heavy hand was lifted slightly for Easter, and more people showed up for Easter services than ever before; others sent word that they would come to services frequently if they dared. Cumberland explained that the family would spend the summer at Dohuk, and if things improved, which he did not think probable, that he would do some touring in the villages. However, "As matters stand, I naturally cannot go to the people any more than they can come to me; it would not be fair to them to get them in trouble." He did not know "How long Government will continue to be nasty," but his intention was to "sit it out." Although specifically warned about plots against him, Cumberland was sanguine:
   I do not think there is much danger to me personally, and
   less to my family, but if there were that would be no reason
   for leaving. Ever since the world began, people have been
   called cowards if they did not risk everything for tribe and
   nation, and today how many thousands are daily in danger
   just as a simple matter of duty without any heroics about it.
   The Church might make more progress if it would get the
   same attitude. (47)

Religious tensions were running high in the area. On May 26 and a few days afterwards, Bibles and religious literature were sold in Dohuk and surrounding villages, but Cumberland was not involved because with the recent controversies the government had restricted him from evangelical work in the villages. Another missionary did make an illustrated presentation at the Cumberland home, which attracted a large enthusiastic audience. On Friday, June 10, local mullahs staged a public burning of some of the materials that had been purchased.


On June 12, Roger had just completed his normal Sunday morning services in the kochki, the upstairs greeting room, when he was informed that two men were present to see him. One of them was the son of the agha (official or chief) of the village of Besifki, a little more than an hours' drive away. Roger did not know the men but he knew the location of the village and the name of the agha. The men shared the ceremonial fruit drink of hospitality and Cumberland's servant Musa served water. They chatted pleasantly for about an hour. Roger sensed no malice or danger and speculated that the men might be there to ask for a loan. Finally, one of them inquired about some religious literature. When Roger turned to retrieve some, the son of the agha fired five shots at point blank range. As they fled, Musa also was shot in the shoulder. Although at first not thought serious, the wound punctuated a lung and he later died.

Cumberland knew that his wounds were fatal but he did not lose consciousness. In the hours before medical attention could be obtained, he was able to provide a full sworn deposition of events to the local judge and he discussed practical details with his wife, including his will and what to pay the workers doing construction at the house. Finally flown to Mosul, Cumberland died on the operating table that evening. (48)

Although their identities were not in question, and indeed the local police held the father of one of the men as a hostage for a time, the killers and two other men from the village who had remained a distance apart in the market apparently were not apprehended. The murder was attributed to religious fanaticism, but the specific motives of the killers were more ambiguous. No distribution or sale of books had occurred in the particular village, whether or not the men had been in Dohuk for the demonstration two days earlier is not known, and question exists about why Cumberland was the target. He had no connection with the particular village, he was well thought of by all the various religious and ethnic constituencies, and, as testified to by both Cumberland and his servant, the two visitors displayed no animosity toward Cumberland at any time during their meeting. Theories on the killing have speculated about mental instability, tribal rivalries, or individuals seeking status through a violent act. Cumberland's colleague James Willoughby decades later commented that the assassin was a notorious character who had no motive for the murder except that he was paid to kill Cumberland. The man remained at large for nine or ten years and was believed responsible for dozens of other murders. Reports existed that he displayed a "government pass" absolving him of the killing of Cumberland as "a spy against the Iraq Government." Years later, he killed an Arab man whose relatives had sufficient influence to gain his arrest and execution. (49)

As he lay dying, Cumberland spoke all that could be said definitively at the time, "They came to get me, and they got me." Harriet evidenced no bitterness, thoughts of revenge, or even a demand for apprehension and punishment of the killers. When a co-worker regretted that the book distribution in Dohuk might have played a role in Roger's death, Harriet asked why would there be any regret because that was what missionaries were there to do. With Roger's death, she and the daughters relocated briefly to Beirut before she concluded her years as a missionary, returned to the United States, and served for many years as the dean of girls at Whittier High School in southern California.


Roger Cumberland would have preferred to work for the church without becoming enmeshed in the politics of the state, but that was not possible. As James Willoughby explained, compliance with government regulations and maintenance of proper relations with political authorities was the number one external concern in missionaries' lives. From his earliest days, Cumberland, of necessity, was engaged with issues of the structure, borders, and leadership of the state of Iraq, and always he was forced to tread a careful path within the Muslim state. When he purchased the village of Babillu, the government decreed that he could not use the village for evangelism. Although Cumberland was seriously committed to the village as a model for agricultural development, his motives included evangelism. Fortunately, this never became an issue of actual confrontation with the state.

In the early 1930s Cumberland was drawn into the crisis instigated by the activities of the Patriarch of the Assyrian Catholics. These events and his courageous challenge to the government in the Sermeil massacre put the young missionary at odds with the state. Despite the pretense of a secularized state and religious diversity, Iraqi officials displayed less than adequate toleration for Christianity and an abiding concern about the potential development of a functioning Christian church in the Muslim country. Conversions to Christianity, especially if they received high public attention, as did the case of the teachers in the Dohuk School, inflamed tensions and Cumberland found himself in the midst of this fray. At the time of his death Cumberland was being harassed by the government and he was specifically restricted by the state from evangelizing. His murder had political overtones, and the killer later claimed that he acted in the interests of the state. Cumberland's entire tenure was dominated by church-state relations in the young Iraqi nation.

Relations between the Christian community and the state became exponentially more complex and difficult in the decades after Cumberland's death. When ultra-nationalist, pro-Nazi Rashid Al-Gailani took power in a coup in 1941, the anti-foreigner mood was so strong that for the rest of the World War II period, UMI was reduced to marginal existence. Of necessity, the nascent local churches played a larger role in any Christian activity. After the war, the UMI revived with personnel increasing from a wartime low of four to twenty-two individuals. Willoughby referred to the time as "a decade of hope." When the Danish Jesidmissionen, which had supported a local individual to work with the Yezedis in Basheeqa since 1929, was forced to cease funding for this activity, the UMI assumed financial support in 1948. The Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (so-called Southern Presbyterians) joined the UMI in 1956 and in 1961 dispatched its first missionaries to a school in a Baghdad suburb. Other Christians beyond the UMI, including the Seventh Day Adventists and Pentecostals, developed an increased presence in various parts of the country. The UMI claimed preeminence in the northern part of the country, but it was not able to devote much attention to the Kurds after the death of Cumberland. The small Lutheran contingent in Irbil served that population to a limited degree.

The Revolution of 1958 and the subsequent 1963 revolutions revived a hostile environment for missionaries and other foreigners. The intervening years were as dramatic for the church as the years of the founding of the Iraqi state. The government expelled evangelists and nationalized amission hospital in Amarah. For UMI only the girls' high school in Baghdad and the boys' and girls' schools in Basra continued. Willoughby noted that the only reason that they survived was that the government had a keen need for every possible schoolroom in existence. The RCA Arabian Mission transferred the Basra Station and its two schools to the UMI in 1961 and the United Mission in Iraq changed its name to the Iraq Fellowship. With steadily decreasing influence from mission personnel, the local churches were largely on their own. Conditions worsened through the 1960s, and when the Baathists seized power in July 1968, the government froze UMI's bank accounts and took control of all of its remaining facilities. In 1969 the long and distinguished tenure of the UMI came to an end.

The story of the five remaining Presbyterian-related churches in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein years and afterward is another complete saga. As for the heirs of Roger Cumberland's mission to the Kurds, Presbyterian missionary Robert Blincoe spent a decade in Kurdistan following the Iraqi War in 1991, and today a couple, whose names for security reasons are best not mentioned, work out of Dohuk. (50) The relationship between church and state in the Kurdish Regional Authority of Iraq is positive but sensitive. Before his death, Cumberland summed up his role as a missionary at the time, and it speaks just as eloquently to that role today.
   Here is a job that not only gives scope for but demands all one's
   knowledge, both rational and intuitive, the exercise of every
   ability that the entire personality can muster.... The missionary
   is almost unique in this: he has access to all classes of people.
   He has relationships, both official and social, with the leaders of
   the community, political, religious, economic, educational; and to
   him the porter and the bootblack are real persons. Usually he finds
   interesting friends in the foreign community. And, though separated
   from old friends, he has an especially happy relationship with
   them.... Especially in these times, whatever position I might hold
   in the U.S.A. there would be a constant awareness that I should not
   really be needed; there would be hundreds of men, just as competent
   and worthy as I, who would be glad to take my place. Here I fill a
   niche peculiarly my own, and few if any envy us. (51)

Roger Cumberland was an ordinary individual whose contribution to history was to live among a people, to observe, to assist when and as needed, to reflect in his daily life the faith he professed, and as opportunity presented itself to speak and teach about Christianity in a region where this activity was a challenging and potentially dangerous pursuit. But his legacy was large. Although one can only speculate about his role had he not died so prematurely, what is certain about him was articulated by a seasoned British Colonial official who remarked, "One may be sure that he was one who did not live in vain." (52)


(1.) Special Supplement to the June 1938 Syria Mission's monthly newsletter, quoted in Herrick B. Young, Roger Craig Cumberland, 1894-1938 (NY: Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 1939), 19.

(2.) This collection, recently made available by a Cumberland relative, offers insight into the man, the area, and the times. The file of letters written to family and friends, several of which were lengthy circular letters to detail his activities, was typed by the relative with the date and place of each letter. Although Cumberland's letters are not comprehensive with gaps in time and obvious missing correspondence, they remain an invaluable source. The academically-talented Cumberland was a gifted writer and a master story teller who recorded vibrant accounts that depict life in this wild and turbulent region. The file is a 100-page single-spaced typescript available at www.RogerCumberlandAmongtheKurds.lettershome.docx. For convenience of reference, the letters are cited hereafter as Cumberland and the appropriate page of the typescript.

(3.) Cumberland was a graduate of Occidental Academy, 1913; Occidental College, 1919; and McCormick Theological Seminary, 1922. He applied to the mission field in his second year at the seminary and was accepted to begin work upon graduation in 1922; however, when his father was murdered in March 1922, he delayed his assignment for a year to help his mother in the transition.

(4.) Cumberland, 1. Early in his tenure Cumberland wrote an article that addressed the question of who were the Kurds, his perception of their nature, and the role of the missionaries in the area. See Roger C. Cumberland, "The Kurds," The Muslim World 16 #2 (April 1926): 150-157. The literature on the Kurds and specifically about those in Iraq is extensive. A few of special relevance for this time period include David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, 3rd ed. (London: I.B. Taurus, 2004); David K. Fieldhouse, Kurds, Arabs and Britons: The Memoir of Col. W.A. Lyon in Kurdistan, 1918-1945 (London: I.B. Taurus, 2002); Gareth Stansfield, The Kurds and Iraq (NY: Routledge, 2008); Kerim Yildiz, The Kurds in Iraq: The Past, Present and Future, 2nd ed. (London: Pluto Press, 2007); Cecil H. Edmonds, Kurds, Turks, and Arabs: Politics, Travel and Research in North-Eastern Iraq, 1919-1925 (Brooklyn, NY: Ama Pr Inc., 2008); and Habibollah Atarodi, Great Powers, Oil and the Kurds in Mosul (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2003).

(5.) James W. Willoughby, The United Mission in Iraq, 1924-1962: A Brief Historical Survey (NY: Joint Office for Upper Nile and Iraq, 1962), 27 pp., traces the complex history of missions in Iraq. Willoughby, an early colleague of Cumberland, served for more than twenty years in Iraq before his transfer to Syria. Also see Gordon Taylor, Fever and Thirst: Dr. Grant and the Christian Tribes of Kurdistan (Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2005), the account of the first Presbyterian missionary in the region; Lewis R. Scudder III, The Arabian Mission Story: In Search of Abraham's Other Son (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. Eerdman Publishing Co., 1998), an encyclopedic introduction to missionary activity in the entire region through the lens of the Reformed Church in America; and Robert Blincoe, Ethnic Realities and the Churches: Lessons from Kurdistan: A History of Mission Work, 1668-1990 (Pasadena, CA: Presbyterian Center for Mission Studies, 1998).

(6.) Willoughby, The United Mission in Iraq, pp. 5-10.

(7.) See Cumberland's "Foreign Missionary Personnel File" (RG 360-346), Presbyterian Historical Society archives, Philadelphia, PA, and the biographical sketch drawn from these files, Young, Cumberland, pp. 4-6.

(8.) See the life of this long-serving missionary in Frederick G. Coan, Yesterdays in Persia and Kurdistan (Claremont, CA: Saunders Studio Press, 1939).

(9.) Cumberland, pp. 5-6.

(10.) On the Jacobites and the distinctions between the various historic Christian communities, including Assyrian, Nestorian, and Chaldean, see John Joseph, Muslim-Christian Relations and Inter-Christian Rivalries in the Middle East: The Case of the Jacobites in an Age of Transition (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983).

(11.) Yezidis emerged in the 12th century in the Kurdish mountains of northern Iraq. The religion, often slandered as "devil worshipers," is a syncretic incorporation of proto-Indo-European religions, Persian Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, Sufism, and regional paganism such as Mithraism. See Birgul Acikyildiz, The Yezidis: The History of a Community, Culture and Religion (London: I.B. Taurus, 2010); Nelida Fuccaro, The Other Kurds: Yazidis in Colonial Iraq (London: I.B. Taunts, 1999); Ezster Spat, Yezidis (London: Saqi Books, 2005); Christine Allison, The Yezidi Oral Tradition in Iraqi Kurdistan (NY: Routledge, 2001); and John S. Quest, The Yezidis: A Study in Survival (London: Kegan Paul International, 2nd ed. 1993; NY: Routledge, 2010).

(12.) Cumberland, p. 8.

(13.) Ibid., pp. 7-14.

(14.) Ibid., p. 15, p. 37. Wright's quote in Young, Cumberland, 1. George Gosselink, a young RCA missionary stationed in Basra, visited Mosul in August immediately upon Cumberland and Wright's return. He noted that with their lull beards, dark tans, and Turkish fez caps, the rakish pair appeared to be locals. Gosselink planned to return in December to travel in the mountains but Cumberland was not available at the time. See George Gosselink, Dear Folks at Home: Letters from Iraq, 1922-1925, edited by Charles C. Gosselink (Silver Bay, NY: Boathouse Books, 2008), accessed at

(15.) Mahmud Barzanji led the first Kurdish revolt against British rule in May 1919. Defeated and exiled to India in 1921, he returned in September 1922 and was named governor of the area. In November 1922, he named himself King of Kurdistan and with a militia called the Kurdish National Army, he began another revolt. Sporadic fighting occurred until the British defeated him again in July 1924, but he fled into the mountains and attempted yet another uprising in 1930-31. In 1932 he signed an agreement with the new independent Iraq government and came out of exile in the mountains. As a teenager, Mustafa Barzani participated in the 1922-1924 revolt and later inherited the mantle as the leading Kurdish rebel; as president of the Kurdish Workers Party, he led the Kurdish resistance movement for decades until his death in 1979.

(16.) Cumberland, p. 14, p. 16.

(17.) See "Memorial Minute, Rev. Roger Craig Cumberland," adopted by the Board of Foreign Missions, June 13, 1938, 104-106. RG 89, Box 2, Folder 6, Presbyterian Historical Society. In later years Cumberland prepared the entire New Testament in the Badinan dialect of Kurdish, but only the Sermon on the Mount and a few other excerpts appeared in mimeographed form before his death.

(18.) Near-East Tillers of Soil and Sand (NY: Board of Foreign Missions, n.d., 16 pages), a published flier on missionary work in Syria, Persia, Iraq, and Kurdistan with sections written by different missionaries; Cumberland wrote the section on Kurdistan, pp. 12-16.

(19.) Cumberland, p. 22.

(20.) Ibid., p. 24, and "The Kurds," pp. 156-157. The Lutherans were the first to have a sustained concentration on the Kurds. They established their total field force at this location in northwestern Persia, one of a very few Kurdish cities, although the area also contained many Kurdish villages more typical of Kurdish habitation. In their twenty years at Saujbulagh, the Lutherans maintained a hospital, translated most of the New Testament into the local vernacular, printed a small hymnal, and conducted worship services that were well attended by locals. The official history of the Lutheran mission is J.A. Jensen and Einer Oberg, The Messengers of God: They History of the Lutheran Orient Mission (Minneapolis, MN: Lutheran Orient Mission Society, 1985).

(21.) Cumberland, p. 24.

(22.) Ibid., p.25.

(23.) Many years later, at the March 1936 UMM Semi-Annual Meeting, Cumberland proposed that the Lutheran mission be invited to join the UMM or at least share work in northern Iraq. See proposal in RG 89, Box 2, Folder 13, Presbyterian Historical Society. In 1937, the Lutheran Orient Mission began work in Irbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.

(24.) Cumberland, p. 26.

(25.) Ibid., pp. 27-29.

(26.) Ibid., pp. 29-30. Cumberland's depiction of Ismael Beg as a man with vision, especially for his family, and a clever manipulator was most accurate. In the internecine wars for power among his relatives, Ismael managed to carve out a place of influence for himself with the British and the Iraq government. Although illiterate, Beg dictated a history of the Yezidis, written by a trusted Arab collaborator, and sent it to Dr. Bayard Dodge, president of the American University of Beirut. A professor at the institution, Constantin Zurayk, published it in 1934 as The Yazidis: Past and Present. Ismael Beg died in 1933 at age 45. His daughter, the first educated Yezedi girl, a princess, shot and fled from her Yezedi husband, converted to Islam in 1947, married a Syrian, and lived a most colorful life.

(27.) Cumberland, p.36.

(28.) Ibid., p. 32.

(29.) Cumberland, "The Kurds," quotes, p. 157 and p. 153.

(30.) A doctor colleague wrote to the Board of Foreign Missions in 1925 that he was concerned about Cumberland's seeming indifference to "climatic and sanitary conditions." Veteran RCA missionary, William I. Chamberlain, who served as chairman of the Joint Committee for the UMM from 1923 until 1935, remarked that "they learn wisdom in time." Although enjoying robust health, Cumberland experienced periodic malaria and the other diseases common to all foreigners in that area of the world, and in later years with wife and children, he took health considerations more into account.

(31.) Cumberland, pp. 32-38. Chiera did return to his life's mission as editor of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary project, a monumental work started in 1921 that was not completed until 2011. He also returned to Mosul for archaeological digs in 1928-1929, where he made important Assyrian discoveries, and he continued as founder and field director of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

(32.) Ibid., pp. 40-41, and Young, Cumberland, pp. 9-10. See Willoughby comment, James W. Willoughby, Goals and Fields of Activity of the United Mission in Iraq, 1924-1962, 18-page typescript (NY: Joint Office for Upper Nile and Iraq, September 1962), p. 13.

(33.) Cumberland, 42-43, 52. Cumberland's mother died in May 1926, and since most of his personal letters to that point apparently were written primarily to her, the frequency of his correspondence declined in subsequent years.

(34.) Ibid, p. 58,

(35.) Ibid, pp. 65-66, p. 69, pp. 71-72.

(36.) "Memorial Minute, June 13, 1938," p. 105. Local lore in Dohuk reports that Cumberland ensured that the local mosque received water which ingratiated him to the Muslim leadership.

(37.) The historical judgment about King Faisal is mixed, but the latest and most definitive biography supports Cumberland's assessment. See Ali A. Allawi, Faisal I of Iraq (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

(38.) Cumberland, pp. 71-72, p. 78.

(39.) Roger C. Cumberland, "The Assyrians in Iraq," World Dominion 11 # 2 (April 1933): pp. 187-194, and Cumberland, p. 71.

(40.) The literature on the violence against the Assyrians tends to be highly polemical. See R. S. Stafford, The Tragedy of the Assyrians (London: Allen and Unwin, 1935) reprinted by Gorgias Press LLC, Piscaway, NJ, 2006) and "Iraq and the Problem of the Assyrians," International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1931-1939) 13 #2 (March-April 1934): 159-185, a contemporary witness who blamed the Iraqi Army; and Mar Eshai Shimun, The Assyrian Tragedy (Catholicis Patriarch, Xlibris Corporation, 2010), by the Assyrian Patriarch. The son of a famous Iraqi nationalist, Khaldun S. al-Husry, "The Assyrian Affair of 1933," (I & II) International Journal of Middle East Studies (Cambridge University Press) 5 #3 (April 1974): 161-176 and 344-360, blames the Assyrians totally for the violence. Most historians accuse the Iraqi army of the massacre.

(41.) Cumberland, p. 79.

(42.) Ibid., p. 79, and copy of his statement and another by RCA missionary John Badeau, whom the Cumberland's spent the summer of 1933 with in Baghdad, found in Mar Eshai Shimun, The Assyrian Tragedy, 50-54. See also, Willoughby, Goals and Fields of Activity, 6. Willoughby explains that because Cumberland spoke Kurdish and was trusted in the community, he knew the names of Kurds who committed crimes against the Assyrians and prominent Arabs who benefited from the theft of Assyrian property. This knowledge subjected him to potential danger.

(43.) The Cumberland's second daughter Janet was born in 1938 and was only eight months old at the time of her father's death.

(44.) Cumberland, p. 84.

(45.) Ibid., pp. 86-87.

(46.) Ibid., pp. 90-91. However, in another incident in the same year (or possibly the same incident seen in different perspective), James Willoughby's account, written twenty-four years later, argued that government officials at times operate with wisdom and justice. Willoughby reported that a teacher in Dohuk was a convert "so strong in zeal and so weak in judgment that he taught the Gospel of John in the religion class of the government school where he was assigned to teach the Quran." The missionaries urged him to cease the teaching of John and return to the prescribed Muslim curriculum. Public opinion was so inflamed that it was thought prudent to put him under protective custody in Mosul. At the same time, a Syrian Orthodox monk from the Monastery of St. Matthew, angry with his bishop, declared his conversion to Islam. This also attracted considerable local attention. The governor heard both cases and sent the monk back to the monastery with the admonition that Islam had no need for such new followers and the teacher was transferred to a post outside Dohuk, where he continued to experience persecution. Willoughby, Goals and Fields of Activity, pp. 4-5.

(47.) Cumberland, pp. 90-91.

(48.) The description of the Roger Cumberland's death comes from a lengthy and detailed rendering of the events of the day by Harriet Gunn Cumberland, written June 15, 1938 from Mosul, Cumberland, pp. 91-98.

(49.) Willoughby, Goals and Fields of Activity, 8. A popular song was written in praise of the assassins. The killer's grandson currently lives in Dohuk.

(50.) Blihcoe addressed the particular difficulties of ministering to the Iraqi Kurds that were relevant to Cumberland and remain salient today. Blincoe explains that these tribal peoples, products of economic and political deprivations, are split between tribal and family rivalries, dialects so different as to be almost separate languages, division between mountain and plains inhabitants, normal social-economic cleavages, xenophobic suspicions of outsiders, and exploitation both by other Muslims and Christians. Each constituency is prone to consider association or friendship with another group as betrayal of the bond between the foreigner and-themselves. Evangelism takes great patience, persistence, and innovation and it cannot be relegated to the local historic Christian communities because the long-term animosities among the peoples are too great. See Blincoe, Ethnic Realities and the Churches, pp. 193-230.

(51.) Memorial Minute, June 15, 1938," p. 105.

(52.) Young, Cumberland, p. 3. The deteriorating remnants of Roger Cumberland's house still standing in Dohuk today survives as a remembrance. A local family has maintained the house as best they can and discussions have been ongoing for several years about raising funds to restore the house as a tribute to the pioneer missionary and his commitment to peaceful ethnic and religious relations. My visit to the Cumberland House in Dohuk in November 2012 inspired this article.

Charles A. Dana professor, and Chair, Department of History and Politics. Converse College, Spartanburg, SC 29302 Professor Dunn was Camegie/CASE 2013 South Carolina Professor the the Year.
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Title Annotation:OTHER PAPERS
Author:Dana, Charles A.; Dunn, Joe P.
Publication:Journal of Third World Studies
Article Type:Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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