For decades, the Jilwaye men of the mountainous frontier of the Ottoman and Persian empires roamed the world, swindling their fellow Christians. Tracing the surprising transnational “opportunities and limits of globalization” available to Mar Zeya’s men, researcher Andrew MacDonald asserts that they had “global ambitions to a degree probably unmatched in history.” They saw their opportunities and seized them, as a “global, multigenerational and hugely profitable fellowship of Assyrian ‘charity collectors’, known at home as the Hacaqoge, or the ‘cross thieves’. Between the 1850s and 1940s, the Thieves traveled a collection circuit of at least five hundred cities in eighty countries, their journeys fueled by the hopes and fears of evangelical Christians.
MacDonald focuses on the varied career of “Reverend Doctor” Marcus Gilliyana Daniel, born in 1870 to an Eastern Syriac Christian clan in Mar Zeya in Jilu, now in southeastern Turkey. Daniel was, or claimed to be, a translator, medical student, schoolmaster, “brigand captain”, archdeacon, Kurdish duke, secret agent, labor recruiter, bigamist, proto-feminist, global beggar and ” international tourist speaker ”. He raced his counter across Eurasia, the United States, South Africa, and many places in between, until his death in 1950.
At the end of the 1930s, the excommunicated Daniel reinvented himself as a “revealer of corruption”. In a well-reported case in April 1936, he led a phalanx of New York City detectives to the pulpit of his former ally, “Reverend” Emmanuel Awdisho, at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. Daniel accused Awdisho of theft, but then left town before revealing his evidence. Awdisho, who had worked with Daniel in South Africa, was found to be known to Scotland Yard as a false cleric and a man of confidence, and would later be deported from the United States.
The cross thieves “traveled with ingeniously crafted begging letters, inflamed by anti-Muslim rhetoric that deceived pious devotees and international border officials.” They sold a “chauvinist brand of evangelical Protestantism, aggressively opposed to Islam, Bolshevism and anti-colonial nationalism” to enrich themselves.
MacDonald argues that these transnational figures do not fit the models of globalization and capitalism at all. They were not elites, nor migrant workers, nor middle class cadres. The thieves “subsisted – in fact profited – not by selling their labor or trading goods, but rather by exploiting charitable donors in a lucrative gift economy that survived – and even prospered – the birth of capitalism. Steps “.
What they did was exploit the worldwide Christian missionary system, which developed tremendously in response to the widespread secularization of the 19th century. Transnational “gift capital” – “grants, loans, concessions, and exemptions” – circulated freely in the missionary economy, providing ample scope for scams for those who spoke the right language. (And the thieves spoke Neo-Aramaic, a modern version of the language Jesus allegedly spoke.)
The community of Mar Zeya belonged to the Eastern Church, the Nestorian Christians, who were considered heretics by Western Christians. Protestant missionaries began to arrive in the border areas between what is now Turkey and Iran in the 1830s. MG Daniel actually attended an American mission school from 1888 and was a part of his first legitimate salary by translating the New Testament into Kurdish.
Daniel grew up in a context of “reverence for beggars” of the Ottoman Empire and the even older Nestorian tradition of distance evangelism, patronage and giving. There was also a local tradition of worms that celebrated traveling crook preachers, a tradition tailor-made for Daniel.
As early as the 1830s, the British and Foreign Bible Society warned against “illiterate collectors” who used a letter of introduction from a Jesuit priest who had been dead ten years ago. In the 1860s, two more members of the fellowship were feted by the London press and invited to the six thousand seat Metropolitan Tabernacle. They returned home with happy stories of the benevolence of British congregations, a benevolence matched the world over.
Daniel and others would milk this train of gravy into old age, tighter border controls, international police cooperation and the enmity of Assyrian nationalists came together to shut them down. In other forms, however, religious grudge remains evergreen.
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