On Coptic Associations & Parishes: Overlapping Routes to a Christian Space in Egypt (Part 2)

The Coptic Hospital near Ramses Square

The Coptic Hospital near Ramses Square

Part 2: The Origins of the Effendis’ Associations

As I wrote in the first part to this essay series, the tram workers who established St. George parish, the second parish in the Shubra neighborhood of Cairo, were successful because of the legal rights that were guaranteed by the 1923 constitution in Egypt. In breaking from a classist environment that alienated them from other Christians, they used the law that allowed them to establish a charitable association to later found a new church. In this essay, I further analyze how class division affected the establishment of the Christian spaces in Egypt.  

The 1923 constitution was labeled the first ‘secular’ legal entity in Egyptian history; however, its secularity did not mean the abandonment of religion. Instead, it re-positioned the role and function of religion in Egyptian society. Non-governmental associations and organizations reflected the spatial shifts of one’s relationship with God but also an individual’s interactions with members of the same religious community. Until 1938, nonprofits were established and administrated through and by the Ministry of Interior, and since then, the Minister of Social Affairs.

Notably, this was not the first time that ‘secularized’ voluntary religious associations were formed in Egypt. Nevertheless, the 1923 constitution was an attempt to further regulate their procedures. In more concrete terms, the Western Catholic and Protestant Christian missionaries, who had arrived to Egypt around a couple of centuries ago, had already established their charitable hospitals and schools together with their parishes. Egyptian Muslims and Christians followed this path and formed their associations not only as a response to the missionaries but also as a critique of the ‘traditional’ religious institutions, namely Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate.

With respect to Christian associations in particular, former Coptic Prime Minister Boutros Boutros-Ghali founded Al-Jam‘iyyah al-Qibtiyya al-Khayriyyah al-Kubra (The Great Coptic Benevolent Society) in 1881.  The Society, which was intended to have many branches across Egypt, was founded a few years after the establishment of Al-Majlis Al-Millī (The Lay Council). The Council, a group of elite Orthodox Coptic Christian laymen (also headed by Boutros-Ghali), had sought to share control the charitable work of Coptic Orthodox parishes. For these elites, the clerical order of the Coptic Patriarchate under the leadership of Pope Cyril V had failed to ‘modernize’ the collection and distribution of donations; having sought to establish a charitable infrastructure that resembled Western styles, they found the systems in place failing. However, the Council itself underwent changes and largely failed to accomplish their goals, thus, Boutros-Ghali and his companions established the Benevolent Society in an effort to ‘secularize’ the practice of the Coptic Christian charity from where they would be able to give to disadvantaged Copts.

Notably, similar to the workers’ parish in Shubra, the story of the first Coptic association was more connected to the socioeconomic class of the founders rather than their Coptic Christian identity. The founders sought to ‘develop’ the conditions of their ‘Coptic’ identity mirroring Western examples, ultimately seeing their Christianity as ‘backward’ compared to the Christianity of the Europeans and the Americans. However, it was their financial resources and political power that gave them the opportunity to establish their Benevolent Society.

Today, the Benevolent Society is located very close to the Ramses Square, and is currently known as the Coptic Hospital (Al-Mostashfa Al-Qibti). It is no longer administrated by ‘elites,’ unlike when it was established in 1881 and in fact is now a public hospital. This is also the case with the workers’ parish and the composition of its current congregation; the class division that might have influenced the foundation of and the Coptic sacred/religious spaces is no longer present in the same way it was reflected in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Briefly for the rest of the second part of this essay and more extensively for third essay in this series, I will discuss the politics behind the move away from the class-based movement that drove the establishment of Coptic associations. I intend to illustrate the historical trajectory through which a certain class attempted to dominate the funding and the administration of Christian spaces in Egypt.

While the first ‘elitist’ association, the Lay Council, mirrored Western/European values of charity and development, newer associations focused on providing assistance to impoverished Copts, as well as contributing to the ‘revival’ of Coptic civilization, heritage, and language. Indeed, the importance of the ‘revival’ was a result of European encounters as well. However, the stakeholders of this revival held a separate agenda that tried to promote a ‘distinctive’ Coptic culture that could be differentiated both from a ‘foreign’ version of Christianity and from a predominantly Islamized Egyptian state and society.  

Consequently, the first two decades of the 20th century saw the establishment of a Coptic museum, a Coptic Seminary, and a Coptic Sunday School, among many other associations. In his book published in 1945, Coptic historian Ramzy Tadros outlines the names and dates of some of these associations. From this list, one can see that associations were not limited to a specific class due to the different social and economic backgrounds of their founders. Notably, there was a cold competition between the elitist Pashas and landlords on the one hand, and a new emerging class of young educated men known as the Effendis on the other hand. The latter were significant because, as will be more elaborated in the third essay in this series, they gave a new role and meaning to the entity of the Coptic association.

Historians Wilson Jacob and Lucie Ryzova describe the Effendi as the ‘modern’ Egyptian man, who was both connected, firstly, to his ‘authentic’ traditions and roots and, secondly, to the ‘Western’ education he acquired. Thus, the Effendis were well-situated, allowing them to have daily interactions with both ‘local’ and ‘foreign’ communities. They embraced various lifestyles and behaviors, believing that the pathway to ‘true modernity’ would be achieved through keeping ties with the ‘indigenous’ traditions that shaped their up-bringing.

Within this context, the associations founded by the Coptic Effendis sought to keep ties with the clerical hierarchy of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate. These associations were still influenced by the European Protestant and Catholic missionaries, but unlike many of the elite associations who were separated from the spiritual authority of the clerical hierarchy of the Coptic Church, the Effendis tended to cooperate with the Coptic Pope together with his priests and Bishops. “Tradition,” as religious studies scholar Samuel Rubenson writes, was “at the heart of… renewal.”[1]

As a result of their strategies, the Effendis received grassroots support from the Copts. By the mid 20th century, the Effendis became even more powerful. Due to the authoritarian policies of President Gamal Abdel Nasser that followed the coup of July 23, 1952 in Egypt, members of the Effendis emerged to be the sole official representative of the Coptic community before the new ruling regime. In the coming essays, I will further illustrate the strict regulations that privileged the Effendis to set exclusive rules regarding what should and should not be called a ‘Christian’ space in Egypt.

[1] Nelly Van Doorn-Harder & Kari Vogt (eds.), Between Desert and City: The Coptic Orthodox Church Today, 35-47 (1997) (quoting Samuel Rubenson).

EgyptMina Ibrahim