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