Bishops, not Pawns: The Roots and Reflexivity of Coptic Interfaith Programs in Provincial Egypt

By Isaac Friesen
Submitted to Session P5010 (Invoking Religion in and against Imperialism, Occupation, and War, 2017 Annual Meeting
Questions about the authenticity and reflexivity of liberal and secular thought among Arab intellectuals have been widely debated in the disciplines of history and anthropology. Scholars such as Joseph Massad (2015) and Saba Mahmood (2006) critique Arab liberal and secular thought as derivative of an imperial Western tradition. Thinkers among the Arab Christian clergy are especially vulnerable to the charge of acting as pawns of Western imperialism (Mahmood, 2016) or as passive victims of discrimination. However, these perspectives have not sufficiently considered the diversity of thought and action within the Coptic clergy and the reflexivity of individual church leaders in responding to shifting problem-spaces (Scott, 1999). My paper examines how Coptic bishops and priests in provincial Egypt reacted to the substantial political, economic and social changes Egypt experienced between 1970 and the present. I show how Church leaders in Beni Suef instituted widespread reforms (such as education and social welfare programs) in interfaith settings in order to spread a secular/liberal ethos among Christians and Muslims. Through an analysis of Bishop Athanasius writings (specially al-sul?k al-sal?m f? al-mujtama? il-mukhtala?, 1972), provincial church administrative documents, and interviews with the interfaith NGO administrators, I will trace a genealogy of the intellectual and institutional forces that shaped the liberal/secular ethos at Coptic interfaith sites. This material will illuminate if and how a diverse group of Egyptian liberal intellectuals, Coptic reformers, and Western thought inspired the Beni Suef church’s interfaith projects. Moreover, I will discuss the relationship church leaders developed with the Western NGO Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), juxtaposing the liberal and secular thought evoked in their own writings against MCC’s organizational mandate. I argue that, rather than acting as mere puppets of Western organizations and ideas, Beni Suef church leaders solicited various forms of Western financial and logistical support in order to help promote a secular/liberal ethos at their interfaith NGOs. In conclusion, this project, by scrutinizing church leaders’ writings, church documents, and interviews with NGO workers and administrators, sheds new light on the Coptic church’s reflexive adaptation of liberal and secular thought in a provincial setting, thereby heeding recent calls (Sedra, 2009; Robson, 2011) to study modern Copts as actors, rather than mere victims or pawns.