On Coptic Associations & Parishes: Overlapping Routes to a Christian Space in Egypt (Part 3)

Habib Girgis and Bishop Suriel (with permission from  Bishop Suriel )

Habib Girgis and Bishop Suriel (with permission from Bishop Suriel)

Part 3: The Founding and Disappearance of the Coptic Faith Society

As noted in the second part of this essay series, the effendis were an educated social class in Egypt that, along with Egyptian elites, established Coptic Christian and Islamic charitable and educational associations, beginning in the 20th century. One of these associations was “Gam’iyyet al-’Īman al-Qibtiyya (The Coptic Faith Society), which was founded in 1900. During the first half of the century, there were significant efforts by the Society to become an integral part of Egyptian society in general, and the Coptic society in particular, but ultimately it disappeared from the Coptic educational, social, charitable and theological scenes in the 1950s, in part due to the rise of other movements.

Founding and Reform in its Early Days

The Coptic Faith Society was primarily based in the Cairo neighborhood of Ḥārit al-Sakkayīīn close to Downtown Cairo and its members were mainly university students and governmental clerks. Its early years were unstable. According to Coptic historian Tawfik Habib, the Society’s building was dirty and its activities were limited to spiritual guidance and the assistance of the poor, if the resources allowed the founders to do so. In his book on Coptic Christian associations and clubs, published in 1917, Habib mentions that the Society witnessed a lot of spatial instability during its first years due to the lack of funds. It had to relocate several times until it settled in the district of al-Faggala in Downtown Cairo.

In 1914, the work and the financial situation of the Society eventually stabilized and even began to flourish. Habib noted that the stakeholders of the Society succeeded in opening many new branches in different neighborhoods inside and outside of Cairo. Ultimately, they were able to expand the scope of their work to teach Orthodox Christian principles, teach Coptic language, research the history of the Coptic Church, produce the Coptic Faith Society magazine, and improve the affairs of the poor.

The efforts of the Society were not confined to its headquarters in al-Faggala or to its various branches. The effendis’ were ultimately committed to integrating with Coptic Orthodox traditions rather than replacing or opposing it and its main official spaces and institutions. The five pillars of the Society did not aim to minimize the role of the Coptic Orthodox Church and its parishes, which were controlled and upheld by the clerical hierarchy of the Church.

On the contrary, the aim was to help to advance the role of the Church. Members of the Coptic Faith Society recognized that the parish was central to the faith and the belief system of the Copts; it is where Copts are baptized, receive the communion, meet their Father of confession, get married, and get anointed with holy water and oil, among many other rituals and sacraments. Hence, instead, the Coptic Faith Society sought to further enhance the people’s connection with their parishes, by expanding the moral, behavioral, research, and spiritual agendas through the Society.

Growth and Influence in the Coptic Community

Although not trying to replace the role that parishes played in society, the Society did exercise authority throughout the Coptic community, occupying a space that had traditionally been held by the Church. The Society was known to spread their views by sending their members to the churches as well as to major religious events. According to Tawfik Habib, the Society sent its lay members to wedding and funeral ceremonies, asking people to abandon “harmful” traditions that they saw as accompanying such gatherings. Among these traditions was the use of belly dancers and singers, as well as ‘professional’ weepers. The members warned the ceremony organizers, that if they continued to practice such traditions, the Church would neither receive prayer requests from them, nor pray over their dead relatives. How did the Coptic Faith Society have authority to decide what the Church should and should not do?

While the Society tried to impose their views by sending its members to the parishes or selling their own sermons in the Church’s library, according to Coptic historian Ramzy Tadros, they were actually met with great opposition by clergymen. The Society was perceived as overstepping their boundaries, because their role was not to preach or organize sermons, but rather to maintain charitable networks. Nonetheless, such criticism decreased as the Society began to negotiate with the Egyptian government and proved that they were also able to start parishes. Priests also began to write for the Society’s publication and join as members. 

With time, the line between a parish and an association, and between the lay members and clergy members, became completely blurred. For example, in the June 1937 issue of the Coptic Faith Society magazine, a Priest from Upper Egypt wrote a piece arguing against beach nudity, and asking Copts not to join such spaces where “sexual desires and sentiments augment.” Moreover, by the time Ramzy Tadros wrote his book in 1945, Father Girgis Boutros, from the St. George Church in the area of Geziret Badrān in Shubra, Cairo, became the President of the Coptic Faith Society. And during the 1930s as well, the Coptic Faith Society magazine reported that its educational syllabi became an essential part of the Sunday school movement (harakat madãrys al-aḥad), a movement that was focused on Biblical and Coptic education, which was attended by Coptic kids and youth at parishes located throughout different Egyptian cities and villages.

Changing Power Relations and Different Paths

Despite their influence in the 20th century, the Coptic Faith Society, and other associations during that time period, are not remembered today in the Coptic society, unlike for example, the Sunday School movement, which has become an essential part of the contemporary Coptic Orthodox educational and charitable traditions. Shifting power relations ultimately defined the influence that the Coptic Faith Society has today.

Habib Girgis (1876-1951), an effendi layman who was sainted by the Coptic Church in 2013 (see cover photo), reveals the shifting landscape of Christian associations at that time. As the founder of the Sunday school movement (1918), Habib Girgis was also one of the lay members of the Coptic Faith Society, and his sermons were published in the Society’s magazine. He utilized the issues of the Society’s magazine to promote the work of the Sunday schools. There was no direct competition or conflict of interests between Coptic Faith Society and the Sunday school movement. Ultimately, both groups belonged to a time when Coptic effendis combatted the European Catholic and Protestant missionaries, while also facing opposition from the ‘backward’ elements of the Coptic Orthodox institution.

Although they were integrating into the efforts of the Coptic Faith Society, the disciples of Girgis followed a different path that ultimately meant that the Sunday school movement grew in prominence among the Copts and their affairs. Members of the Sunday school movement integrated into the Church structure by joining monasteries to be monks, bishops; one even became Pope Shenouda III, the 117th Coptic Orthodox Pope. In this regard, members of the Sunday school movement did not only become priests who reformed the parishes from inside, as was the case with the Coptic Faith Society, but they also occupied the highest positions of the Coptic Orthodox clerical hierarchy. They followed a path through which they could both make use of and reform the Coptic Orthodox tradition, which gives more power to the monks than to the married priests.

Arguably, members of the Sunday school movement chose an appropriate time to go to the monasteries – the 1950s. During this time, the coup of 1952 had happened, and one prominent Muslim effendi, Gamal Abdel Nasser, headed a military autocratic regime that embraced an alliance with the Coptic effendis. Such an anti-imperial, anti-colonial, and anti-elitist regime found in the monasteries of the Egyptian deserts its loyal monks, who would later monopolize the establishment of Christian spaces in Egypt.

The coming parts of this essay series will discuss the alliance between the State and the Sunday school movement, in particular looking at the impact it had on the relationship between parishes and associations. Over time, many Coptic Orthodox associations, like the Coptic Faith Society, lost their influence and parishes began to flourish instead, revealing how the routes towards the establishment of Christian spaces in Egypt became deeply influenced by the Sunday School movement and its members.

Mina Ibrahim