How should Christians work together for a just world? Through their remarkable lives, two 20th century Egyptian Christian women offer us some answers: Marie Bassili Assaad (1922-2018) and Mother Irene (1936-2006). Both women have impacted millions globally, yet their stories remain largely unknown to Christians in the West.
Assaad and Irene lived out their Coptic Orthodox Christian faith and served their communities in different ways: one as a monastic and one as a married lay woman with children. They were contemporaries, both recognized as leaders by church hierarchy, although we don’t know if they ever met. They lived their lives in parallel with a keen commitment to girls and women, sustained themselves with a community of love, and maintained their resolve with the virtue of patience. They provide models for us of carrying on the Christian tradition of social justice in the face of many challenges.
Marie Bassili Assaad’s Community of Love
The culturally entrenched practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Egypt is one such challenge. Egypt legally banned FGM in 2007 and strengthened the ban in early 2021 by including a 20-year jail term for those who implement the practice. Even more importantly, the actual prevalence of FGM in Egypt has been decreasing, from an almost universal practice to an 87% prevalence as of 2016. This is in no small part due to Marie Bassili Assaad’s tireless efforts since 1970, when she published her first of many research papers on FGM in Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa. Assaad had already been the first woman to take an executive role at the World Council of Churches, where she served as deputy general secretary for six years. She also became a founding board member of the Association for the Protection of the Environment, working with the garbage collectors of Moqattam, Cairo, now a model for sustainable development work around the world. Through all this she continued to advocate against FGM, describing it as “the key to all my work.” “How,” she said, “can I deal with family planning or literacy or the girls in Moqattam and all this, and let this girl be cut up?” Assaad knew well that eliminating FGM would need a widespread effort. She headed up an NGO task force to combat FGM that convened in her living room, and went out with teams into communities to engage with local leaders, doctors, and families about eliminating FGM.
Yet FGM was not all she worked on. In 1986, four inexperienced Egyptian young professionals flopped onto their seats in the train car, dusty and sweaty, as Assaad led them through a reflection on what they had observed and experienced. Then, to the incredulity of her exhausted fellow travelers, she pulled out her knitting needles to work. This group had been traveling through impoverished communities in Egypt, visiting different development projects to learn how they could serve the poor through the Coptic Orthodox Bishopric of Public, Ecumenical and Social Services (BLESS), the church’s social development arm. In 1985, the World Council of Churches was evaluating its grant program with BLESS, which had a new bishop leading it after Bishop Samuel’s assassination, and new staff to implement its programs. The WCC evaluators hesitated to renew the grant with this newer and inexperienced staff until Assaad, who was helping BLESS through this turbulent transition, asked them, “Do you trust that I understand community development, yes or no?” They said, “Of course we trust you.” So she responded, “Ok, I will train this staff, so you are renewing your trust in me. I will be their mentor and I will be their guarantee.” The WCC evaluators agreed to renew the grant for another year, and this locomotive tour with Assaad, described to me by two of the participants, was the introductory course.
Assaad taught many things to this group of fellow Egyptian community workers, some of whom had never otherwise left Cairo, but the most important thing she taught them was how to build a “community of love.” It was among her famous “three Cs” that she often repeated: “depend on your Community of love, make sure you are clear in all your Communication, and benefit from Collective wisdom.” The community of love sustained Assaad through the difficult work of social justice and poverty alleviation that she initiated and led in both Egypt and abroad.
By definition, Assaad’s “community of love” is a group of like-minded people working on the goals of social justice and community development. They share life, exchange ideas, grow friendships, and offer each other support and constructive criticism. The community is informal but also intentional. For some time, Assaad would have regular meetings with her community of love. She considered many of those people who came to her for mentorship and advice as part of her community of love as well, especially as she grew older.
Born the youngest child in a Cairene middle class family in 1922, Assaad credits her persistence to having to overcome numerous barriers within her own family. “[Whenever] I was challenged, I have tried always to prove myself, since I was little.” The youngest of four girls, her mother had hoped she would be a boy (two years after, her brother would be born). She had a darker complexion than her sisters, which “gave me a lower standing within the family,” but this, she says, “developed my stronger ‘fighter’ personality, and increased my compassion towards the poor and neglected.” She attended the public Ghamra Primary School, the American College for Girls for secondary school, and then completed two Bachelor of Arts degrees from the American University in Cairo, the second one after her marriage in 1954.
Persistence also includes patience, and Assaad had much of this. Just as experienced knitters continue working while their projects look like nothing but thread loops on needles, so Assaad cultivated that virtue of patience. She did so within herself while exhorting the same to those around her. Nadia Wassef wrote of her participation, at Assaad’s invitation, in the FGM task force in 1994 during the U.N. International Conference on Population and Development. After five years, Wassef moved on to opening the Diwan bookstore in Zamalek, but never stopped following the news about FGM. When the new Egyptian Demographic and Health Survey was released in 2004, Wassef called Assaad in disappointment. The decrease in FGM prevalence in Egypt, after all that work, was only 5%. Assaad, aged 82 at this point, told Wassef that “nothing is hopeless … [did] you want the world to change on your timetable?” Wassef writes, “She constantly reminded me that the world would change when it was ready to, till then we must work diligently to ensure that the setting is ready to receive the change.”
Assaad’s diligence may have set the stage not just for positive changes for girls and women in Egypt as a whole, but also for more prominent leadership for women in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Although never taking on an official staff position or role in the Coptic Orthodox Church as an institution, the church often called upon Assaad for help during times of transition. She mentored BLESS staff in 1985 when Bishop Serapion (now Metropolitan of Los Angeles, Southern California, and Hawaii) took over its leadership, and she returned again to support BLESS in 1996 for two years when Bishop Youannes (now Bishop of the Diocese of Assiut) became its leader. At her funeral, Bishop Youannes called her “My mother.” Among the many things she taught him, she taught him to pray. “There were always serious problems with other organizations,” he explained. “She used to say that we will first pray, and then we can do the next thing.” Bishop Moussa, the general Bishop for Youth who also knew her well, called her “an icon of love,” and compared her to her namesake, the Virgin Mary.
Mother Irene’s Community of Love
Several miles away from the Virgin Mary’s Church in Zamalek, where Assaad’s funeral was held, Mother Irene, also known as Tamav Erene (or Irini), lays to rest in a shrine built for her at the Monastery of St. Mercurius Abu Sefein in Old Cairo. She was born 14 years after Assaad, but died 12 years before Assaad died, having suffered several illnesses. While her popularity within the Coptic Orthodox community has much to do with her association with St. Mercurius’ miraculous works of healing, what is lesser known about her is her leadership and commitment to equality in the monastic community she led. When she became abbess, she transformed the monastery from a rundown home, where nuns from wealthier families had more resources than nuns from poorer families, into a thriving community. All nuns there now receive equal resources, and female monasticism is elevated in the church. There is now a waiting list for young women wishing to take vows.
Like Assaad, Mother Irene also built a community of love to sustain her work. The center of this community was the monastery itself. She converted it from a semi-eremitic monastery, where the nuns mainly lived as hermits and each sustained herself spiritually and physically; to a cenobitic monastery based on the Pachomian Koinonia, where the nuns lived in community, meeting several times a day for prayer, and resources were distributed evenly among all the monastery inhabitants. Mother Irene cites justice as one of the reasons for making this change:
“I was upset by the striking differences between the nuns. The richer nun was comfortably off, while the poorer one was destitute. If a nun worked with her hands and received help from her family, she led an easy life, whereas if she could not work and had no outside help, she had to struggle in poverty.”
To implement such a drastic change, Mother Irene would need to convince the 52 nuns who were there before her to accept the new system. Pope Kyrillos the VI, who had consecrated her as the abbess of the monastery when she was only 26 years old, told her that there were ten nuns whom he believed would cause problems for her. If they troubled her, she had his permission to expel them from the monastery. Mother Irene, however, chose the path of patience, promising herself when she became abbess that “I would put up with any nun with love until the very last day, regardless of the troubles that she might cause me.” As part of her leadership strategy, she did not impose the new rules on the eldest nuns who had been there for several decades. Instead, she quickly made changes that would benefit those nuns. One of those changes was building churches within the convent so that the nuns with disabilities could partake of holy communion without having to leave the convent to go to a nearby church, or having it delivered to them in their cells. The first altar was consecrated within one year of Mother Irene’s appointment to abbess. Over time, several nuns from Mother Irene’s community moved on to lead other convents. Like Assaad, Mother Irene’s leadership empowered and inspired many others.
Pope Kyrillos VI, her fellow nuns, several bishops and priests, and some lay people who supported the monastery formed Mother Irene’s community of love. Yet her community of love expanded to also include the saints. The line between past and present has always been blurry for Egyptian monasticism, and so also the line between heaven and earth. Mother Irene was known for her personal friendship with the convent’s namesake St. Mercurius, who died as a Christian martyr seventeen centuries before Tamav was born. She also had visions of the Virgin Mary and regularly called upon the prayers of other virgin saints. Under her leadership, the convent commissioned a scholarly publication on the history of female monasticism in Christianity, The Virgin Mary and Other Virgins in Different Ages (Cairo: Harmony Printing House, 2002), which included the stories of female monastics and virgin communities that pre-dated St. Antony, widely known as the father of monasticism. These women, too, became a part of her community of love.
Diverse Gifts, One Spirit
The impact both Mother Irene and Marie Bassilli Assaad have had in Egypt and abroad cannot be quantified, nor can it be understated. This is the power of patience and the community of love. Both women broke barriers as leaders both within and outside of their communities. They did so as Christian women in a country where they are the minority, and yet they garnered the respect of everyone around them. Most importantly, they made positive changes for marginalized communities, and inspired countless others to do the same.
Although I never met Mother Irene, I have visited her monastery many times. The nuns there still share her stories and publish books about her. In her shrine, I have asked for her prayers the way she asked St. Mercurius for his. I have met Marie Assaad many times at her home in Cairo. As one of those young professionals who sought her mentorship, I’m honored to be considered a part of her community of love.
Despite their similarities, Mother Irene and Marie Bassilli Assaad may have never crossed paths — they might not have even gotten along if they did. Assaad, while deeply religious, lived her faith firmly in the public square; Mother Irene lived hers firmly in the religious sphere, venturing outside the monastery only to do work on behalf of the monastery. Assaad’s friendships were ecumenical; Mother Irene was known for defying Protestant missionaries in her village when she was young. As Christians working toward a just world, these two women’s disparate paths demonstrate a diversity of gifts, but one Spirit (I Corinthians 12:4). I draw from both their lives and words as I work with others for a just world, growing in patience and sustaining myself with a community of love.
Photos: via the Assaad Family and stminahamilton.ca.
- Daughters of the Nile: Egyptian Women Changing Their World, edited by Samia Spencer (Cambridge Scholars Publishing)
- Tamav Erene and Glorious Horizons in Monastic Life Part I by The Convent of the Great Martyr St. Philopater Mercurius Abi Seifein for Nuns
- Many Women Were Also There: The Participation of Orthodox Women in the Ecumenical Movement, edited by Eleni Kasselouri-Hatzivassiliadi (World Council of Churches)