Assessing Coptic Reform Through the International Christian Student Movement

In 1908, a Coptic Society known as Asdiqa’ al-kitab al-Muqqadas, or Friends of the Bible, was established to facilitate doctrinal and scriptural training for young Copts. Al-Asdiqa’s network expanded across Egypt and caught the attention of leaders within the growing Protestant ecumenical movement, specifically the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF)—an organization dedicated to coalescing pre-existing national student movements and creating new national chapters on a global scale. As WSCF expanded into the Middle East, they identified potential in Al-Asdiqa’ to become Egypt’s representative in the intercollegiate federation and were “anxious to recognize the ‘Friends of the Bible’ as the indigenous movement among [Egypt’s] students.”[1]

Yet tensions emerged between Society leadership and Federation representatives. Nationalist and communal concerns prompted Al-Asdiqa to reevaluate joining the WSCF, which deeply frustrated the Federation and its network of ecumenists. Anglican missionary Temple Gairdner even went so far as to declare the Friends defunct by 1921: “To all appearances, in all our opinions, the Friends of the Bible died, spiritually speaking.”[2] In actuality, Al-Asdiqa’ continued to expand their reach, and at the height of their influence in 1940, managed 35 chapters across Egypt and served up to 4000 students (compared to 500 in 1921).[3] What could account for this stark misinterpretation from WSCF affiliates?

Drawing on themes outlined in Candace Lukasik’s recent review of the Copts in Modernity Conference, this brief essay examines alternate trajectories and sources of Coptic reform in the modern period. Examining a Coptic organization’s growth following their non-cooperation with Protestant expectations provides an alternative to dominant narratives aligning Coptic ‘renaissance’ to a Western missionary or colonial source.  Al-Asdiqa’ s entangled history allows us to acknowledge the agency of Coptic actors and consider how such groups may have co-opted the language of modernity to define reform on their terms.

Coptic Reform and the Rise of the Laity

During the mid-nineteenth century, one of the central preoccupations within the Coptic community was the tension between the clergy and the laity on the issue of communal authority. As educational opportunities and institutions expanded for non-clergy, a burgeoning class of Coptic intellectuals began to demand greater say in communal governance. In 1874, the Majlis al-Milli (lay council) was formed to provide a platform for the laity to participate in the decision-making of the community.

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Morcos Moftah, Coptic Philanthropic Society. Library of Congress

The involvement of the laity gave rise to the formation of voluntary organizations known as ‘benevolent’ or ‘philanthropic’ societies to advocate for social issues. The first of these philanthropic organizations, the Great Coptic Benevolent Society, was founded in 1881 by a growing cadre of affluent and politically active Copts.[4] The Tawfik Society, on the other hand, comprised mainly of a rising class of bureaucrats who’s “primary motivation had been the creation of reformist leadership, aimed at addressing the social inequalities prevalent in Coptic society.”[5]

A few decades later, Asdiqa’ al-kitab al-Muqqadas was established by Basili Butrus, a graduate of the Clerical College, as a religious educational initiative for Coptic youth. The organization advanced its mission by holding regular Bible studies, developing literature for monthly bible reading pamphlets for secondary school students, and extra-curricular activities for the development of “clean and pure living.”[6] The Society considered this work as paramount to reforming the rest of the community: “It is useless to try and reform others while we ourselves stand in the greatest need of reform.”[7]

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Friends of the Bible Weekly Reading Schedule, Yale Divinity Library

Asdiqa’s dedication to internal reform was an expression of communal shifts in the social organization and education of the laity at the turn of the twentieth century. Key figures and institutions of this movement including Habib Girgis and the Majlis were intimately connected to the formation of the Friends of the Bible. It was in consultation with Girgis that Butrus received the encouragement to seek support for his vision, and in 1903 he embarked for Leeds College of Theology in England where, with financial support from the Majlis, he spent three years studying the structure and operation of student societies abroad.[8]

Butrus was significantly influenced by Protestant student models during his time in Egypt and abroad. The role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as the Christian Missionary Society (CMS) were especially influential, due in no small part to British occupation of Egypt, which enabled a network of CMS missionaries to take root. Though Al-Asdiqa’s pedagogy and focus on the Bible was shaped by Western models, it also fixated on the strengths of the Coptic tradition. The organization taught students Orthodox doctrine and its focus on scripture derived justification from church liturgy, as the Secretary of the Friends underscores: “the Coptic Church is renowned amongst Christian Churches for the amount of scripture its liturgy. [9]

Ecumenical Ambition, National Resistance

Al-Asdiqa’s relationship to this network of Protestant missionaries would change following ecumenist lobbying to incorporate the group into the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF). Established in 1895 following a gathering of representatives from the most prominent intercollegiate student groups across the globe, the WSCF became a collaborative of national student movements committed to strengthening the faith and knowledge of scripture among the world’s youth. The WSCF coalesced on the momentum of a growing global ecumenical movement led by evangelical leaders who developed a robust transnational program of conferences, meetings, organizations, and publications to connect Christians across denominational and national lines.

The WSCF was distinctive in that it “was a radical step toward ecumenical cooperation at a time when no other worldwide, non-Roman Catholic Christian agency based on independent national organizations existed.”[10] Its structure comprised of membership-based student groups, organized through their national chapters. It was the design and goal of this intercollegiate movement to be a truly global enterprise. Yet, groups without a national affiliate functioned in a nominal capacity until formally organized according to their country of origin. WSCF leaders and representatives would often embark on fact-finding missions to identify potential grassroot student groups to incorporate into the federation.

During exploratory trips to Egypt, various representatives from the WSCF noted how receptive local Copts were about the prospect of joining the federation. But as the Great War came to an end and aspirations for independence took root, suspicion of foreign institutions and projects affected relations between the Friends and the Federation’s representatives. Sherwood Eddy, a leader of the American Student Volunteer Movement (SVM), was an affiliate of the WSCF who reported on conditions in Egypt to the Federation. In a letter written in 1920, he expresses concern about measures to grant the Egyptian state independence and is hopeful for the continuation of British rule: “Here [in Egypt] Lord Cromer with his modern reforms which have given prosperity organization and good government to Egypt, and here Kitchner and Allenby have ought to carry on the great tradition of British rule.”[sic][11]

However, when the chairman of the WSCF visited Egypt in 1921, he had an unpleasant meeting with al-Asdiqa’, where a certain Gindi Wasif “had a marked bad effect.”[12] Later correspondences reveal that it was Wasif’s anti-imperialist stance that became the source of agitation between the groups. Gairdner abandons hope that al-Asdiqa’ will join the Federation and provides a harsh analysis to the chair of the WSCF regarding the Society’s leadership: “The present acting secretary is a man who has grown utterly cold, who is useless, who cannot do anything and who does not mean to do anything; whose sole idea is to uphold policies of anti-foreign, non-cooperation, and anti-dissent.”[13] The discourse of self-determination was not confined to the political sphere and ultimately proved a decisive issue in the encounters between the Friends of the Bible and the Federation.

Conclusion

What is particularly revealing about the fall-out between the Friends of the Bible and the World Student Christian Federation is how it was shaped by sentiments of independence, nationalism, and anti-imperialism. In contrast to Gairdner’s prognosis, the Friends did not dissolve after 1921, but instead became more active and grew to serve more Coptic students throughout the interwar period. These encounters illustrate how expressions of Coptic reform did not follow a singular ‘Western’ course and often involved adapting and transforming ideas to fulfill communal needs. Al-Asdiqa’s decision does not represent a failed opportunity in reform, but instead provides an example of how a group utilized refusal to underscore their agency in a globalizing and modern world.


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Amy Fallas is a PhD student in the Department of History at UC Santa Barbara. Her current project examines the global dimensions of the religious encounters between Anglo-American missionaries and their co-religionists in Egypt during the interwar period. She also writes on migration, identity and religious minorities in the Middle East.


[1] Henriod to Gairdner, December 13, 1921. Yale Divinity Library.

[2] Gairdner to Henriod, December 27, 1921. Yale Divinity Library.

[3] Vivian Ibrahim. The Copts of Egypt: Challenges of Modernization and Identity (London: I.B. Taurus, 2010), 107.

[4] Ibrahim, 105.

[5]Ibid, 127.

[6] Friends of the Bible, Secretary’s Report for 1912. Yale Divinity Library.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jami’yyat Asdiqa’ al-Kitab al-Muqaddas al-Qibtiyya al-Orthodoksiyya fi Qarn min Zaman (1908-2008),  Magdi Aziz al-Sabki, Al Watan, June 8, 2008.

[9] Friends of the Bible, Secretary’s Report for 1912. Yale Divinity Library.

[10] World Student Christian Federation Guide, Yale Divinity Library.

[11] Sherwood Eddy, October 2, 1920. Yale Divinity Library.

[12] Henriod to Gairdner, December 13, 1921. Yale Divinity Library.

[13] Gairdner to Henriod, December 27, 1921. Yale Divinity Library.

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