The Dutch Coptic Orthodox community is small but growing steadily.
Coptic immigration to the Netherlands started in the 1960s, when a few families arrived to pursue higher education and started high-profile jobs at universities and banks. The following wave occurred in the 1970s, when many Coptic students came to the Netherlands for summer jobs, mostly in agriculture, factories, and car sales. Some of them returned to Egypt, while others sought possibilities to continue their lives in a new country. The third wave of migration took place in the late 1980s, when the Coptic Orthodox Church was officially established in the Netherlands. After the Second Gulf war, many Copts emigrated from Iraq and the Gulf to Europe, including the Netherlands. The group mainly consisted of young Copts who sought social, political, and financial stability.
The first Coptic Orthodox church in the Netherlands was established in 1985 in Amsterdam, marking the official ‘birth’ of the Dutch Coptic community. For almost a decade, the church in Amsterdam was the only Coptic church in the country and Father Arsanious was the only priest responsible for the whole community. The size of the Coptic community in Amsterdam increased in the following years and the presence of a stable parish in Amsterdam encouraged more Copts to move to the city (and its surroundings) to settle near the church. The community significantly grew in the 1990s and early 2000s, when more churches were purchased, and more priests were sent to the Netherlands by Pope Shenouda III.
Today, there are more than ten priests who serve a total of nine Coptic Orthodox churches in the Netherlands, and specifically in Amsterdam, the Hague, Eindhoven, Utrecht, Assen, Leeuwarden, Kapelle, Leidschendam and Bussum. In addition, there is a Coptic church in Antwerp, Belgium, which is under the jurisdiction of the Dutch Coptic Orthodox diocese. In the east of the country, a Syriac Orthodox church in Enschede is used by the local Coptic community, and in Lievelde, the Copts established the Coptic monastery of the Virgin Mary and St. Theodore of Amasea in 2015. Holy Virgin Mary church in Amsterdam (Koptisch-Orthodoxe kerk van de Heilige Maagd Maria) serves as the seat of the diocese. The diocese was established in 2013 when the pioneering priest Arsenious was consecrated that year as Bishop Arseny.
It is difficult to make an exact estimate of the number of Copts in the Netherlands since the state census does not register religious or ethnic identification among its citizens. According to some earlier estimates, there were around 2,000 Copts in the Netherlands at the end of the twentieth century, while a later source suggests that this number increased to 4,000 Coptic believers by 2005 (Van Doorn-Harder, De Koptisch-Orthodoxe Kerk, 161). Another projection states that there were around 6,000 Copts in 2010, while the official website of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Netherlands estimates about 10,000 Copts (even though it is not clear when this information was last updated). Although we do not know the exact numbers, projections suggest that the Coptic community in the Netherlands is increasing. When it comes to the geographical diffusion, most of the Copts live and are members of the churches in the central-western Netherlands (approximately corresponding the conurbation of Randstad consisting of the four largest cities in the Netherlands). The majority of Dutch Copts are self-employed or work in tourism and different fields of the hospitality industry. Some of them work as building contractors, doctors, engineers, pharmacists and bankers. (Al-Anbā Arsānī, Shamʿa Muḍīʾa: al-Kanīsa al-Qibṭiyya fī Hūlandā, 49).
According to the official website of the Diocese, the Coptic Church in the Netherlands is actively involved in ecumenical relations and closely cooperates with local Protestant and Catholic churches, as well as with its “sister” Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches. In 2005, the Coptic Church became part of the Council of Churches in the Netherlands (de Raad van Kerken in Nederland), which unites mostly churches from the mainline Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions, in addition to a number of Evangelical and Orthodox churches. Additionally, the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Netherlands is a member of the Alliance of Oriental Orthodox churches in the Netherlands (Samenwerkingsverband van Oriëntaals orthodoxe Kerken in Nederland, SOKIN), with Bishop Arseny as its chairman, and a pan-Orthodox organization named Orthodoxe Zendende Instantie (OZI). The OZI functions as a meeting point for administrative cooperation among member-churches and aims at increasing the visibility of Orthodoxy in the Netherlands. Interaction and cooperation among Orthodox churches in the Netherlands is also realized through education and research, and specifically through St. Irenaeus Orthodox Theological Institute (St. Irenaeus Orthodox Theologisch Instituut), located at Radboud University in Nijmegen. St. Irenaeus Institute offers courses at under-graduate and graduate levels and conducts research in both Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy.
The Dutchification of the Coptic Tradition
The Coptic community in the Netherlands aims to preserve and follow the teachings, principles and rituals that constitute the Coptic tradition. The Dutch Coptic Orthodox diocese pays a great deal of attention to retaining the “authentic” church and community organization, to convey the structure, atmosphere and visual aspects of the Mother Church outside Egypt. This continuity is reflected in efforts to conduct the holy liturgy according to the Coptic Orthodox rite, providing baptism, marriage, and funeral services to its members, decorating and organizing the churches “in a Coptic manner” by hanging icons of Coptic saints, having the altar face east, install wooden decorations and Coptic inscriptions, among other things. In addition, Sunday school lessons and hymn singing classes for children are organized, as well as various other social and spiritual activities to unite different generations.
Beyond local parish services, the Netherlands is one of several European countries where the Coptic monastic life is preserved and nourished in the diaspora. The Coptic Orthodox monastery in Lievelde in the province of Gelderland was established in 2015, when the building of a previously Catholic monastery was purchased. The monastery opened its doors to three monks in early 2016. Additionally, the Diocese acquired a building for its Coptic cultural center (Koptisch Cultureel Centrum), which was officially established in 2007 and is located next to the church in Amsterdam. The center incorporates a chapel, two halls, twelve Sunday school classrooms, guest rooms, youth club rooms, a gym, cafeteria, and the church shop (Lepoeter, “Een Koptisch-Orthodoxe Kerk in Zeeland,” 11). The cultural center is an important meeting point for the local community. Overall, Coptic churches in the Netherlands represent places for socialization where the Coptic identity can be communally expressed at least once a week.
Although Copts in the Netherlands tend to uphold traditions rooted in the contemporary Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, they are certainly not immune to change, adaptation, and innovation. One of the central examples of the diaspora developments concerns the liturgy. The liturgy in the Coptic churches in the Netherlands is usually conducted in three languages: Arabic, Coptic, and Dutch. In some churches, such as the Holy Virgin Mary church in Amsterdam (which has the largest congregation in the country), services are divided based on the target generation and are conducted in three different chapels. The first service is in Arabic (with Coptic elements) and is directed towards the senior population; the second is performed in the three languages and thus is suited for a mixed audience, while the third service is solely in Dutch and is meant for the youngest members of the community. Although the Church provides Arabic lessons to second and third generation Copts, many are not fluent or cannot read Arabic. Sunday school is also given in Dutch to cater to younger congregants. In this way, the Church accommodates the needs of its youth (often seen as “the future of the Church”) to be able to pass down the Coptic tradition and Christian values in a language they fully understand. Aside from the youth, translations of the liturgy (and of spiritual books and other materials) are also meant for the youth and converts to the Coptic Orthodox faith – mostly through marriage. The number of converts, however, remains low.
Dutch Copts also innovate through hymnology. The traditional Coptic melodies are preserved while some (or at times all) parts of the text are translated into Dutch. In the words of a priest, one of the main tasks of the Coptic Church in the Netherlands is to create a balance between Christian and Coptic Orthodox values, on the one hand, and Western, more liberal values, on the other. This balance on issues of education and upbringing for the youth encourages young Copts to integrate into Dutch society while still retaining their “Coptic identity.” These are the challenges facing the Coptic Orthodox Church in the Netherlands, which is negotiating change by adapting and innovating various elements of its tradition and practices, which are now acquiring a Dutch vesture.
Coptic Textual Practices in the Netherlands
Textual production and activities in their widest sense have a long tradition within the Coptic Orthodox Church. For Dutch Copts, their textual and literary practices commenced with the establishment of their Church in 1985. Most of the Coptic churches in the country have church shops where different textual materials are sold. These textual practices reflect a variety of trends in the contemporary Coptic literary scene. These trends include the import and circulation of various textual materials from Egypt and other Coptic ‘diasporas,’ writing new texts in different genres, translating and publishing books and booklets in Dutch, and increasingly asserting an online presence.
A 2010 issue of the official magazine of the diocese presented a list of twenty-four Dutch publications, although there are no concrete statistics. The textual practices of the Copts in the Netherlands are another form of adaptation acquiring a Dutch dress. The young Coptic community began translating and publishing various textual materials in Dutch at an early stage. Some of these early publications include ritual books, which are used on a regular basis in the church to represent one of the fundamental sources for an active religious life. These include the Holy Liturgy according to St. Basil (the first translation was published in 1976, even before the foundation of the first church) and Agbeya (the Book of Hours). In addition to ritual books, publishing activities of the Dutch Coptic community include translations of books about the doctrine, theology and spirituality of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Among these are books by Pope Shenouda III, which, along with original editions in Arabic and English, abound in Coptic bookstores across the country. The Coptic Church in the Netherlands also publishes its bilingual and bimonthly magazine, called al-Tariq (الطريق)/De Weg (The Road), which was established in 1985. Over the years, the magazine has featured multiple sections covering different genres and contributions by both Coptic lay members and the clergy, including a fixed section by Pope Shenouda III until his death in 2012.
The textual production in the Coptic Orthodox Church in the Netherlands is still modest and largely depends on the materials published in Egypt. Yet during my visits to several Coptic churches in the Netherlands, I was told that physical books are losing their prominence, especially among the youth (a development seen among Dutch youth more generally). Most either solely make use of ritual books in the church or reach out to various online platforms when it comes to reading or learning. Many church goers, both the youth and adults, have been increasingly following the liturgy and reading psalms on their smartphones, whether in Arabic, Dutch, or English. This has inevitably changed the traditional nature of ritual textual practices, in churches or elsewhere. However, even with an increased online presence and efforts at digitization, traditional textual practices are still defying the move to digital publications and other online resources. The slowly growing numbers of publications produced by the Coptic community in the Netherlands suggest that there is every reason to believe that these books will remain a significant part of many church bookshops and persevere as an integral part of the religious practices of the Church and its members.
The Coptic Orthodox Church in the Netherlands counts almost forty years of existence. Commencing with one church and one priest in 1985, Dutch Copts today have ten parishes and a monastery. Although the community is small compared to those in North America and Australia, the Coptic diocese of the Netherlands is growing, with a couple of new churches established in the last several years. The Coptic community of the Netherlands is highly active; church leaders participate in ecumenical meetings, both at the national and continental level; the Church organizes various spiritual and cultural activities for its members, as well as for the members of other Oriental Orthodox churches in the country (such as the meeting of Oriental Orthodox choir groups held in 2019). Additionally, many Copts are active through several groups founded by the Church, including a youth group Sint Petrus and Osret Om el Nour, which consists of more than 200 Coptic women who participate in various social activities, such as singing, cooking and taking care of the sick. The Coptic Orthodox diocese of the Netherlands fosters monastic life and pays special attention to its youngest members through Sunday schools. Additionally, the Church is expanding its textual production with an increased number of translations of Arabic and English books and publishing its bimonthly magazine.
Taking a closer look at the activities and practices of the Copts in the Netherlands helps us to better understand how this immigrant church is preserving and transmitting the Coptic tradition, while undergoing the process of Dutchification.
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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.