By Mina Ibrahim
Following the 25 January Revolution, many Coptic social movements were formed. These movements have challenged the hierarchical clerical order of the Coptic Orthodox Church, its Pope, and Bishops. Turning against such hierarchy, whose congregation is the biggest among the other Christian dominions in Egypt, has reflected a historical and critical yet unresolved debate. It has to do both with the ‘adequate’ leadership and, consequently, with the ‘suitable’ policies that should rule the lives of the Coptic Christian community.
Although this debate has frequently been highlighted within academic platforms and through various media agencies, the idea of emphasising it through the daily religious practices has mostly not occurred.
The spirit of Tahrir Square
During the Tahrir Square events, Copts were publically capable of singing their hymns, raising their crosses, and reading their Bibles in the streets of Downtown Cairo. They imagined themselves to be equal to their Muslim counterparts while calling for freedom and social justice.
As a result of, and to further maintain the ‘spirit’ of Tahrir Square, the Coptic protestors rejected the appeals of late Pope Shenouda III and other bishops to leave the square and to give former president Hosni Mubarak another chance to reform the country. They also criticised the clerical leadership of supporting a president who discriminated and marginalised the Coptic community throughout his ruling period.
Following the Tahrir demonstrations and the ousting of Mubarak, the Coptic community has been debating its future. The policies of the Coptic Patriarchate have been unsatisfactory for the newly-formed Coptic social movements. Local media has been reporting the representation of the political, social, and economic demands of the Copts outside the Church.
Beyond the spirit of Tahrir Square
Literally translated into service, khidma resembles any practiced activity that can manifest the religious identity of Christians living in Egypt.
One example of a significant contemporary khidma is the charitable services offered by the Church to low-income Copts. Based on a biblical scripture, this khidma is known in many Coptic churches as Khidmet Ikhwet il-Rab (serving the brethren of the Lord).
A few months after officially becoming the 118thCoptic Orthodox Patriarch in November 2012, Pope Tawadros II issued a plan in an attempt to centralise this khidma. This computerised plan, which was made effective by the end of 2013, has geographically allocated each of the recipients of the donations among the churches according to their place of residence.
Through an official statement, the Coptic Patriarchate emphasised that the plan would guarantee equal distribution of donations.
Organising spaces for the central plan
A Coptic layman, who is a member of Khidmet Ikhwet Il-Rab in an Orthodox church in the neighbourhood of Shubra, accepted to speak on condition of anonymity. When asked about his opinion regarding the 2013 central plan, he emphasised the administrative changes that accompanied it.
“To ensure the plan will be well-executed, Pope Tawadros II divided Shubra into two Bishoprics; Northern Shubra and Southern Shubra,” he said.
In June 2014, Bishop Angelos became responsible for 13 churches in the Bishopric of Northern Shubra and Bishop Makary responsible for 12 churches of the Bishopric of Southern Shubra.
The 2014 ordinations also included the establishment of new Bishoprics in Cairo in the districts of Moqattam, Maadi, Ain Shams, and others. This administrative development was “for the sake of organisation”, as the mouthpiece of the Coptic Patriarchate Il-Keraza magazine indicated. Previously, most churches in Shubra were directly linked to the Pope. Due to the latter’s various responsibilities, there was not full control over the khidma in these churches.
Another layman from another church in Shubra also demonstrated that the central plans, together with the new ordinations, properly regulated Khidmet Ikhwet Il-Rab. He described how he could currently get the details of any one of the makhdomein (the beneficiaries of the khidma) through a central electronic database.
“In the past, each church relied on its own paper documents due to the absence of coordination between our church and other ones. Some poor people were taking money from more than one church because it was difficult for us to exactly know who belongs to which church. But now, because it is computerised and brings all the churches together, the central plan has made sure that each one would be associated with only one charitable outlet”.
However, a third layman from another church complained that the central plan was accompanied by complex procedures that hinder laymen from independently practicing their khidma.
“I have been part of this khidma for more than 20 years…There is no doubt that my freedom to organise the khidma together with the others has greatly lessened after our church became part of the Northern Shubra Bishopric… The new Bishop has to firstly approve the execution of everything we propose”.
Alternative spaces for khidma
The recent central plan of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate could further be analysed through the works of Boris Nikolov, a full-time faculty member in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice at Towson University, Maryland in the US.
For his PhD dissertation “The Ecclesial Government of Love, Care, and Charity”, Nikolov conducted an ethnographic study over the last decade on the social services offered by the Coptic Church hierarchy and on how it influences the lives of Copts. His focus was mainly on the social spaces created by the Coptic clerical system, in which the spiritual authority of the Coptic Patriarchate is practically materialised through the different forms of khidma.
What is significantly missing from Nikolov’s argument, however, is how the authority of the khidma is contested and negotiated among the Copts.
The tight centralisation of the Coptic Patriarchate over the khidma does not exist in an absolute manner. Coptic philanthropy has historically extended to spaces that are not part of the charity services offered by the Church’s clerical hierarchy. Investigating the when and the why of this phenomenon is very meaningful for understanding the politics of the Coptic Orthodox community.
By the end of the 19th of century, Boutros Ghali, who later became Egypt’s Prime Minister, led a group of Coptic landowners to predominantly criticise the organisational mechanisms by which the Coptic Patriarchate was distributing donations among low-income Copts. Accordingly, they attempted to practice this form of khidma beyond the financial and the administrative control of the Coptic Patriarchate.
In 1881, Boutros Ghali and his fellow laymen established the Great Coptic Benevolent Society. This society manifested a clear privatisation of Khidmet Ikhwet Il-Rab. It moved the Coptic mode of giving outside the endowments owned by the Coptic Patriarchate. According to a premise made by Ghali’s group, the society tended to “modernise” the Coptic Orthodox charitable services and to replace the “traditional” endowments since the latter were incapable of coping with the Catholic and the Protestant missionaries who came to Egypt during the 1850s.
Gahli’s Benevolent Society is currently headquartered inside the Coptic Hospital in Downtown Cairo. It originally started as an elitist project, where the economic wealth of its stakeholders converted into means of production of khidma. Unlike the first society, tens of thousands of Coptic charitable societies currently exist throughout Egypt. Most of them operate on very small scales in middle-class and low-income areas.
The work of these societies is not associated with the authority of the Coptic Patriarchate but rather with the laws of the Ministry of Social Solidarity, specifically under law no. 84/2002. Since the 1923 constitution, these societies started to be part of the public sphere when the Egyptian government gave equal opportunities to its citizens to voluntarily establish non-governmental organisations or societies regardless of their religious backgrounds.
In Shubra, Daily News Egypt visited three of these societies and spoke to some of their members.
“We do not abide by the 2013 central plan employed by the two new Bishoprics… we do not even know what it is about,” said a Coptic layman who is responsible for a charitable society that serves around 60 Coptic women.
Another person who serves in another society emphasised that the central plan would not solve anything. For him, “the numbers of poor Copts are too much, poverty is a huge problem. What Pope Tawadros did could improve the external shape of the khidma presented by the Church but the internal content would never improve”.
Empowering low-income Copts
The presence of the charitable societies does not only empower the laymen to practice khidma outside the walls of the Church: low-income Copts have also found in these societies opportunities to circumvent the 2013 central plan.
“Before the central plan, I used to take money from more than one church. I was not greedy, the amount of money I receive from each church was too little. One of my daughters is too sick and I cannot work because of my physical disability,” said one widow who has four daughters and three sons. She emphasised how the societies help her to cover some of her expenses.
Another woman criticised another aspect in the central plan: “I used to receive money from laymen and priests whom I know. After the plan, I was forced to go to another church that is strange to me. I refused to go there because I cannot get money from people I do not know… this is humiliating for me. Now I only know the laymen in this society. I love them and I am very happy to receive money from them.”
The ‘everydayness’ of protest
Decades before they appeared in the Tahrir Square, crosses, bibles, and religious anthems had already moved into spaces that do not belong under the control of the Church hierarchy. Before Coptic laymen criticised their clerical order for supporting Mubarak’s regime, they acted against its policies towards the organisation of the Christian ritual of giving.
Accordingly, the spaces in which Khidmet Ikhwet Il-Rab was practiced beyond the Coptic Patriarchate highlight the everydayness of “other” modes of living as a Coptic Christian and of defending the economic and social needs of low-income Copts in contemporary Egypt. The contestation of khidma among Copts reflects the internal dynamics of the Coptic community, without waiting for mass demonstrations or a major political changing.