On Coptic Associations & Parishes: Overlapping Routes to a Christian Space in Egypt (Part 1)
From one time to another, particularly in an Upper Egyptian city or village, we hear about an attack committed against a Christian charitable association because people intended to “turn it into a church or parish.” Although both spaces are separately defined in the Egyptian constitution, there is a strong social, political, and theological overlapping between both structures. Accordingly, the purpose of this piece and of coming follow-up reports is to trace how this overlapping creates a contradictory increase in the opportunities and the perils of making a Christian space in Egypt. This is the first essay of several that will present an anecdote through which I will reflect on one or both sides of such contradiction.
Part 1: The Tram Workers’ Parish in Shubra
In July 2015, Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate visited Mar Gerges (St. George) Coptic Orthodox parish in Shubra in northern Cairo. It was the 90th anniversary of the establishment of a Christian place that is spiritually and administratively guided by the Pope and the clerical order of the Coptic Church. The celebrations, which lasted for a week, witnessed an extensive narration of the history of the parish together with a remembrance of its founders.
During the celebrations, Coptic Orthodox Bishop Raphael, who used to pray at this parish when he was a kid living in Shubra, gave a speech about the origins of his neighborhood church. The Bishop mainly focused on how the founders of the parish faced problems in getting a license from the Egyptian state to construct their place of worship. More importantly, he connected what happened in the year 1925 to current times difficulties that legally prevent Coptic Christians from establishing sacred spaces in a country of a Muslim majority like Egypt.
The Bishop’s story is a very true one. Copts have for centuries been struggling to obtain a clearly defined law for the building of ‘official’ parishes. Throughout the process, they have been forced to exclusively follow one path while asking for permissions to construct neighborhood parishes like the one in Shubra. To be sure, many academic writings but also reports of human rights organizations have pointed to the arbitrariness of this ‘legal’ and ‘official’ route, and to how it did not give Copts their ‘full’ and ‘equal’ rights to decide on where they can pray and practice their religious rituals and traditions.
Although this route is very ‘visible’ and ‘popular’ within various local and international media agencies, the mere focus on this scope of building a Christian space in Egypt limits the analysis to a dominant narrative that describes Copts as ‘victims’ of religious faith. This essay, thus, will highlight how such victimhood is problematic because, on one hand, it exclusively situates Copts as passive subjects who, on one hand, need recognition by the Egyptian state through effective church building laws and, on the other hand, have to be represented and protected by the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate and its clerical order.
Consequently, beyond this ‘dominant’ narrative, I learned about a different version of the story of the 1925 parish in Shubra while doing fieldwork for my doctoral studies. This story, I suggest, will add other layers to the narrative of the Bishop mentioned above. To begin with, before the year 1925, there was just one Coptic Orthodox Parish in the neighborhood of Shubra called St. Mary. At that time, moreover, Shubra was mostly an elitist district, so the congregants of this parish were mostly landlords who lived in villas and palaces. This was the case till tramlines were installed in Shubra at the beginning of the 20th century, which required many tram workers and their families to move to Shubra from rural areas in the outskirts of Cairo to manage a living at their new working place. As a result, the Christians among the workers only found the single parish of St. Mary to pray and worship in.
The book in which I found this story was published on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of St. George parish. Published in four separate parts, the first part of the book The History of Mar Gerges Church adds that during the 1925 Christmas’s Eve prayers – on January 6 – some of the elites asked the workers and their families “to sit at the back of the parish because they were not wearing 'nice' clothes for the feast.” As a result of this ‘insult,’ the workers started a funding initiative to build another parish. Eventually, within a few months, the workers had their own place of worship that was not very far from St. Mary.
The narrator of this story is the grandson of one of the tram workers. In his narrative, he mentions that before buying the piece of land, the workers searched for a temporary place to fulfill spiritual needs. The solution was the establishment of an association on another street in Shubra, a Gam’eya, as it is called in Arabic. A few meters away from the current location of St. George parish, the workers bought a small flat and turned it into a place of worship. In doing so, the workers who were joined by other Christians in Shubra, took advantage of the then recently produced 1923 constitution that gave opportunities to all Egyptians regardless of their class, religion, gender but also nationality to establish voluntary associations and organizations.
The following essays and series will begin by elaborating on how the 1923 constitution both facilitated and complicated the routes to the making of a Christian space in Egypt by blurring the legal, social, and theological lines between an association and a parish. It will also investigate the historical trajectory through which narratives like the one of the Bishop currently conceal other ones that tell about the complexity of making of a Christian space in Egypt. For now, it is enough to conclude with how the tram workers’ association was a step towards the making of St. George parish. That is, before they mobilized their minoritized Coptic identity in their struggle to obtain a ‘license’ from the Egyptian state to build their parish, the founders were mobilized against the classist comments they received at St. Mary parish. From January 1925 till the opening of St. George parish in July, there were transitional six months spent at the association in which the workers’ prayers were separating them not only from the Muslim majority but also from Coptic Christian elites in Shubra.
After buying the land and getting the necessary governmental permissions, the workers did not have enough money for the infrastructure of the parish. Insisting on challenging their position as ‘victims’ of their socioeconomic status, nonetheless, the founders initially used wood instead of cement, clay bricks, and ceramic to execute the architectural design they had for the new house of God. “And it was beautiful like the parishes in Europe you see on television,” as a 67 years old deacon at the St. George parish told me.