The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria expanded its territorial and ecclesial boundaries over the last six decades. Waves of Coptic migration from Egypt (and to a lesser extent from Sudan and Libya) to North America, Australia and Europe led to the establishment of numerous Coptic churches and thus contributed to the creation of a transnational Coptic Church. Permanent emigration began in the mid twentieth century and advanced during the reign of Pope Kyrillos VI. Under Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Church started to expand considerably outside Egypt. Today, Coptic ritual activities are performed in the Coptic mahgar (“the land of immigration”) across all continents and continue to shape the religious lives of many ‘migrant’ Copts.
The largest Coptic Orthodox communities outside of Egypt are those in English-speaking countries, mainly in the USA, Canada, and Australia. Accordingly, those communities are well-known both within the transnational Coptic Church and among scholars (Coptic and non-Coptic alike) who deal with the diaspora in their research. By contrast, there is a large lacuna in Coptic studies and other related disciplines when it comes to research on the Coptic Orthodox communities in Europe. Many of these communities, smaller in size and younger in existence, are usually overlooked among researchers. Little is known about their histories, organizations, and activities.
First contact between Europe and the Coptic Orthodox Church occurred several centuries ago, with the arrival of Catholic and later Protestant missions to Egypt. Under British rule, the Copts (and their compatriots) became more familiar with migration to Europe. In the early decades of the twentieth century, many Egyptian students earned opportunities to pursue their higher education in British universities before returning to Egypt. Copts capitalized on these opportunities and advanced in their academic and professional careers across Great Britain. Increasingly, contact with European nations (mainly Britain and France) and their cultures, together with political developments in the country (colonial rule, nationalist movements, religious revivals, among others), familiarized Copts with possibilities for education and professional advancement in different Western countries.
By the 1950s and 1960s, Copts started migrating to Europe in greater numbers, as was the case with other Coptic waves of migration. The United Kingdom was one of the first destinations, which probably explains why today it hosts the largest Coptic community in Europe. The UK is also where the first Coptic liturgy in Europe was conducted in 1954. During the Nasser era, many Copts who emigrated to the UK were highly skilled professionals, especially those who studied medicine and moved to different British cities in order to complete their medical training. After graduating and completing their specializations, the National Health Service sent graduates to wherever their expertise was needed. This partly explains the geographic diffusion of the Coptic community across the UK, which is now organized under three dioceses and numbers more than 20,000 members (Hunter & McCallum Guiney, “The Quest for Equal Citizenship,” 8).
In the 1970s and 1980s, immigration to Europe intensified as more middle-class Copts were able to emigrate due to the intifāḥ (open door) policies implemented by President Anwar al-Sadat. The main reasons for Coptic emigration from Egypt were largely shared by all Egyptians who considered migration: first, pursuit of a better education and professional advancement. Second, to escape poverty, economic decline, and political instability. However, as the Islamic movement in Egypt intensified and brought on an increase in interreligious conflict, Copts had additional motivation to emigrate, as many of them faced persecution and discrimination. In addition to the United Kingdom, Copts mostly immigrated to Western European countries, such as France, Germany, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands. Most of these communities flourished at the end of the twentieth century and have considerably grown ever since (Stene, “Multiple Choice?” 91). It is difficult to provide reliable estimates of the number of Copts in Europe because religion is not part of the official state census in many European countries. Egyptian Copts, therefore, simply fall into the category ‘Egyptians.’ Moreover, those who became naturalized in their new countries and whose children were born outside Egypt are often legally recognized as “British,” “Italian,” “Dutch,” among others. Thus, rough estimates of the community sizes usually come from Coptic immigrant churches.
The first Coptic parishes in Europe were established in England, France, and Germany. The first church in England was founded in 1974 when the Copts bought a Protestant church in Kensington, London, consecrated by H.H. Pope Shenouda III in 1978. In France, the first priest was ordained in 1975 in Marseille, followed by the ordination of more priests in other French cities, including Paris and Toulon. The first Coptic church was established in Germany in 1975 in Frankfurt, and in the following two years, churches were consecrated in Stuttgart, Dusseldorf, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Hannover. Coptic communities in Europe grew with an accelerated migration towards the end of the century, resulting in the foundation of more parishes. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Copts acquired new places of worship in many other European countries, including Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, and Greece (Al-Banna, Al-Aqbāṭ fī Miṣr wa-al-Mahjar, 172-174).
Most often, Copts purchased abandoned churches or monasteries from the local communities, whether Catholic or Protestant, and in some cases from other Orthodox denominations (as is the case with the Coptic church in Berlin which had previously belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church). If Coptic communities are not able to purchase a church, either due to lack of resources or various legal regulations, parishioners rented a church building from another denomination. For instance, in Spain, where the local Catholic church does not sell its buildings, the Coptic diocese rents several churches, usually under a contractual obligation of as much as a hundred years. In addition to obtaining churches, the Coptic Orthodox Church has invested in establishing various cultural centers and Coptic monasteries across Europe. Monasticism, as one of the central pillars of the Coptic tradition, was brought to the continent and many Coptic monks now devote their lives to spirituality, surrounded by forests and mountains. Some of the European Coptic monasteries can be found in Scarborough, England, Kroeffelbach and Höxter in Germany, Milan in Italy, Ronchères in France, and Lievelde in the Netherlands.
The Coptic Orthodox community in the UK boasts thirty-two parishes in both the United Kingdom and Ireland. France hosts more than fifteen parishes and its members are represented by dioceses of northern and southern France, and by the Coptic Orthodox Church of France, headed by metropolitan Abba Athanasios. In Germany, there are nine churches but one can find more communities that are not centered around established parishes. Certain estimates suggests that there were around 12,000 Copts in Germany in 2016. Italy is home to approximately 120,000 Egyptians, and a large Coptic community led by two bishops who oversee six churches across the country. In addition, in recent years we have witnessed the rise of new communities, such as those in Spain and Hungary. In Spain, Copts mainly centered along the Mediterranean coast and numbers around a thousand believers. In Hungary, the Church community, which numbers around 100 families, obtained its first church only in 2011, and has organized under the Central European Coptic Orthodox diocese since 2017 (Salguero Montaño, “Iglesias orientales en España,” 285).
Coptic Orthodox churches in Europe maintain close relations with one another. There are yearly seminars and conferences organized by Church leaders, including youth meetings. Every year, the European youth conference is held in the last week of August, hosted by a different country each year. During this event, young Copts, accompanied by bishops and priests, take part in various social and spiritual activities and discussions. For instance, they participate in joint liturgies, Bible reading sessions, and prayers, as well as in discussions about the youth’s role in the Church and take trips to local sights. The organizers of the conference, which has taken place since 2001, aim to adopt a “Christian and modern manner” throughout the event. In 2007, the Netherlands hosted the “Europe Youth Mission,” where around 550 young Copts from all over Europe gathered for a four-day event. The last conference was held in Italy in 2019, attended by around 600 Copts. Another recent initiative by the Coptic churches in Europe is The European Academy for Coptic Heritage (TEACH). This Academy was founded in 2019 in the United Kingdom and functions as a learning platform that aims to preserve and transmit Coptic heritage by offering multiple courses in Coptic history, music, language, theology, and many other aspects of Coptic culture. The lessons are given online and mainly in Arabic, English, and French, with a possibility of introducing German, Dutch and Italian in the future. The academic board of TEACH mainly consists of several European bishops, priests and lay Coptic professionals.
Copts in Europe are an overlooked diaspora. Existing scholarship on the diaspora Copts has largely concentrated on the communities in North America and Australia and has neglected the growing communities in Europe. Some of these diasporas already have well-established parishes, while others have only recently emerged and started to develop. These new waves of Coptic migration have contributed to the ongoing expansion of the Coptic Orthodox Church globally. As a result, new communities have been established in the recent years (such as those in Spain and Hungary) and today, many European countries host at least one Coptic church. Studying European Coptic diasporas can reveal strategies and dynamics of recent waves of emigration from Egypt and demonstrate conditions of establishing and organizing new communities in contemporary times. Exploring the Coptic presence in Europe reveals transcontinental networks among the churches (e.g. at the ecclesial, ritual, administrative, and organizational levels) and thus sheds light on possible mutual influences among them. In addition, Coptic churches in Europe display a high level of linguistic diversity when it comes to their ritual and textual practices. A visitor to a Coptic church in Europe can attend the liturgy in Italian, purchase a book by Pope Shenouda III in German or spot wooden inscriptions of psalms in Spanish. These developments depict Copts’ adaptation to local needs and environments, as well as changes in the traditional visual culture of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
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Matija Miličić is a PhD candidate in comparative religious studies in the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies, Radboud University in Nijmegen (the Netherlands). Previously, he completed a Bachelor’s in Arabic philology at the University of Belgrade (Serbia) and obtained an MA degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Leiden University. His PhD thesis focuses on the textual practices of Coptic Orthodox communities in Europe between 1970 and 2020.