“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Matthew 5:6
Marie Bassili Assaad, ecumenical leader, deputy general secretary of World Council of Churches (WCC) from 1980 to 1986, defender of the dignity and rights of women, community leader, and brilliant sociologist and anthropologist, passed away on 30 August, at the age of 96. Her funeral took place in Egypt on 2 of September. She was a gentle and unyielding champion who gave global leadership both nationally and in Egypt against female genital mutilation. She was also a pioneer promoting diakonia for people living in the margins of society.
“Over seven decades Marie Assaad has equipped and enabled church and society to address controversial social and ecological issues with gentle grit, deep commitment, and unwavering resolve”, said Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, WCC general secretary.
“Marie Assaad has been a deep inspiration to me”, said Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri, WCC deputy general secretary. “Even in an era when women were not taken seriously, she was a holistic and inclusive leader, who approached the most challenging issues that society faced, anchoring her work in deep spirituality, based on scientific evidence, remaining connected to the local communities and with the credibility to challenge those in power, with consistency, and without compromise.”
Assaad’s extraordinary life journey was marked by diaconal service and prophetic witness which began at a very young age. While still at school in Cairo, she volunteered to assist underprivileged families that suffered from tuberculosis and helped their children with their education and literacy. With the encouragement of her mother, at the age of 13, Assaad became a member of her local YWCA (Young Women Christian Association) as “junior leader”, and in 1947 she represented the movement at the second World Conference of Christian Youth in Oslo.
In 1953 she was appointed as the first Egyptian woman to serve on the World YWCA in Geneva, where she served for 16 months as a program assistant in the Youth Department. She went on to take up the position of secretary-general of the Egyptian YWCA.
Assaad was a delegate to the WCC's Assembly in Nairobi in 1975, where she became a member of the working committee of WCC's Department of Cooperation of Women and Men.
In 1980, she was chosen as WCC deputy general secretary, making her the first woman and non-clerical figure to be appointed to the executive levels of the organization. During her six years of work in Geneva, Assaad was also the staff moderator of Unit III, Department of Women and Men in Church and Society. She was also an active member of the Christian Medical Commission. She placed women’s issues firmly on the council’s agenda. She was also instrumental in planning, executing and publishing and presenting a two-year study on female sexuality and bodily functions in different religious traditions, in time for the UN Decade on Women. The publication was also made available for the WCC Assembly in Canberra.
A member of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Assaad was a deeply spiritual woman who played a key role in establishing the Coptic Church’s Bishopric for Social and Ecumenical Services. Bishop Moussa, bishop of youth at the Coptic Orthodox Church spoke of Assaad as an “icon of love”, touching upon her diverse roles as a mentor in public life, within the church, and through the deep personal bonds she forged with people of all denominations. “She transcended the boundaries of rich and poor, educated and illiterate, Christian and Muslim,” Bishop Moussa said.
Assaad graduated from the American University in Cairo with a BA in Sociology and Anthropology and, in 1965, she joined the university’s Social Research Center, where she focused her anthropological research on population studies. Her groundbreaking study on female genital mutilation in Egypt and Africa was published in 1970; the first of its kind to reach such a wide range. Her study later became the base of work for the committee preparing for the UN’s International Conference for Population and Development in 1994.
Assaad also headed a task force to combat female genital mutilation, which brought attention to the topic formerly regarded as taboo. Despite her refusal to undertake formal positions, Assaad exerted great effort to support the government in combatting the evil practice in Egypt. Consequently, battling female genital mutilation became one of the main focuses of the National Council for Motherhood and Childhood. During the campaign against female genital mutilation, Assaad worked across social and religious boundaries, bringing both Muslim and Christian clerics to the table. Her long and tireless effort bore fruit in her nation in 2008, when the Egyptian government issued a law criminalizing female genital mutilation, with the first case tried in 2015.
Assaad’s versatile actions in communal service were characterized by her ability to initiate grassroots action and bring in a broad spectrum of partners in what she called her “community of love”. She was among the first people to advocate and take action on the need to separate and sort garbage at the source. She played a significant role in establishing the Moqattam-based Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE), where she worked as a volunteer for more than 20 years in the Zabbaleen area in Moqattam, one of the poorest slums in Cairo. By volunteering, dedicating and committing to countless projects, Assaad, with the help of APE, was able to empower the Zabbaleen (garbage collectors) community through education and entrepreneurial projects. Promoting innovative recycling methods in Cairo, she enabled the Zabbaleen community to recycle about 85% of the trash they collect. Furthermore, Assaad and her partners developed a four-point approach in order to enhance the living conditions of the Zabbaleen community. The approach, which included topics such as how to articulate one's thoughts and accept others, focused on health, education, capability building, and interpersonal relationships.
Assaad is survived by her three sons Adel, Hani and Ragui, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the countless people whose lives, her work has touched, inspired and protected from harm.
Carla Khijoyan, WCC programme executive for the Middle East, concluded: “Marie was a unique and dynamic ecumenical leader. Her influence and impact have spanned many generations, across different sections of the society - from the poorest communities in Egypt, the various faith communities, including Christians and Muslims, the youth movements, her own church, the local government, the United Nations and the ecumenical movement. Her legacy of love for all and her quest for human dignity will remain with us forever.”