As part of my PhD research project on the Coptic Orthodox Church in Europe, I spent almost two months in Italy doing fieldwork among Coptic Orthodox communities across different Italian cities. I visited more than ten churches and two monasteries, stretching from Milan in the north to Catania, in Sicily. During this enriching period, I learned about the history of the Coptic Church in Italy and the everyday realities of Italian Coptic communities. This is a two-part series on the Coptic communities in Italy. In this series, I will present two areas where Coptic communities in Italy face challenges regarding preservation of tradition while adapting to migration-related circumstances. In the first part, I highlight the role of textual practices and language choices as the Church’s strategy to cope with various challenges it faces while establishing itself into the Italian society. In the second piece, I will turn to the issue of acquiring places of worship as one of the principal obstacles for a religious minority to preserving and practicing their faith.
Introduction – History and Organization of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Italy
The story of the first Coptic communities in Italy began in the 1970s. As is the case with many other Coptic diasporas, the first migrants were young people seeking better job opportunities. Due to its geographical proximity to Egypt, Italy became one of the most popular destinations for migration in the 1970s and 1980s. While some took seasonal jobs and returned to Egypt, many Copts decided to stay permanently. It was also common for young Coptic men to only go back to Egypt to get married and then return to Italy and settle with their families close to their work places.
As the number of the faithful grew in the largest cities, particularly in the north, the need for an organized ministry emerged. The ministry commenced officially in 1984 when hieromonk Beniamino El Baramusi was sent to Milan by H.H. Pope Shenouda III. Residing in Milan, El Baramusi traveled to other cities where he met and served numerous groups of believers, occasionally being able to rent smaller Catholic chapels. In the following years, several priests and monks were taking over the ministry. The community started to evolve considerably with hieromonk Barnaba El Soryany’s arrival in 1990. Hieromonk Barnaba spent several years trying to find and bring together believers into a more organized community before officially settling in Rome. At the same time, General Bishop Anba Kirolos (previously Metropolitan of Minya), was sent by Pope Shenouda III in 1992 to supervise the territory of Milan. With two leaders in the two largest Italian cities, the young Coptic community of Italy grew gradually and the ministry stabilized. In 1996, hieromonk Barnaba El Soryany was consecrated as Anba Barnaba, Bishop of Turin, Rome, and the surroundings, and Anba Kirolos as Bishop of Milan and abbot of the Anba Shenouda monastery in Lacchiarella (Milan).
Italy, thus, became home to two Coptic Orthodox dioceses serving communities from Milan in the north to Sicily in the south. Coptic diocese of Milan, with its seat in Cinisello Balsamo, covers the north and northeast of the country, with churches in regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Canton Ticino in southern Switzerland. According to a booklet published to celebrate an exhibit about the Coptic Orthodox Church held in Milan, the diocese has eighteen churches and a monastery, officially recognized by the Holy Synod in 1998. The city of Milan hosts the largest community in the entire country, with the Saint Mark church in the city center being the oldest parish and its church building has been used by the Copts since 1984.
Diocese of Turin, Rome, and the surroundings covers a vast geographical space from Turin in the northwest to Catania, in the very south of Italy. Besides Turin and Catania, the diocese serves Coptic communities in Genoa, Bologna, Florence and Rome, among others. The bishopric is located in Laurentina, a small settlement south of Rome. According to the official website of the diocese, there are a dozen of churches served by Bishop Anba Barnaba and several other smaller parishes that are not centered around church buildings. The largest and central community of the diocese is gathered in the Saint George Coptic Orthodox church located in northeastern Rome.
Today, the Italian Coptic community is one of the largest Coptic diasporas in Europe. As is the case with other Coptic communities in both Egypt and the land of immigration, it is difficult to obtain somewhat precise estimates on the number of Copts in Italy. According to various sources, ranging from personal communications with members of the clergy to different scholarly works centered around Copts in Italy, there are between 15,000 and 20,000 active members in both dioceses. Diocese of Milan is larger of the two and hosts at least 10,000 Copts, while the Roman diocese serves around 1,000 families, along with numerous individuals, of whom many hold a refugee status.
Textual Practices and Language Ideologies
Preservation and transmission of tradition, heritage, and religious knowledge of the mother church represent a major effort of migrant Coptic Orthodox churches. Thus, the issue of continuation of what constitutes “Coptic identity” outside of Egypt plays a central role in how migrant churches view and organize their spiritual, social and educational activities. In addition to financial and other practical matters, churches and its clergy in the Coptic mahgar are faced with numerous challenges related to transgenerational needs of their communities. Language ideologies are an important area of the Church’s efforts to mediate different generations while often being torn between preserving the heritage of the motherland and expectations (whether external or internal) to integrate into the local society.
Diaspora Copts’ textual practices, including different language-related issues, represent a salient way of preserving and transmitting Coptic tradition, as well as of inscribing oneself into a local society. Since the very inception of the first Coptic community in Milan, adoption of the Italian language has been an important project of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Italy. When the ministry stabilized in Milan and Rome, a need to inscribe oneself linguistically in the local environment meant learning Italian and translating various materials into the new language. Understandably, liturgy and books used during the service were of the highest priority. Liturgy in Italian, more precisely translated parts of it, benefitted the first migrants to Italy and some converts to Coptic Christianity (mostly via marriage), but more importantly it signified a vision for the future. The late Bishop Anba Kirolos paid great attention to the translation of liturgy and of various textual materials of the Coptic Church from the very beginning of his ministry, and saw it as a necessity to cater the ever-growing community and to foster its advancement.
In addition to translating the texts of the Holy liturgy and publishing bilingual (and in some cases trilingual) khūlāgīs (الخولاجي المقدس), early publishing activities included vast translations of Pope Shenouda III’s books that center around the dogma, teachings and theology of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. A large number of these books were translated in the 1990s, mostly from English, thus benefitting from earlier translations from Arabic original versions that had been available to and circulated within the transnational Coptic community. Translations of Shenouda’s books were therefore a method of preserving the Coptic tradition while adhering to the integration discourse present in the Church. As one Coptic Orthodox priest in Italy has shared with me, integration into the Italian society plays an important role for the Coptic Church in Italy and mastering the Italian language is certainly one of the central elements needed for desired integration.
Besides the role Italian plays in connecting Coptic migrants with the local population, including in their relations with the Roman Catholic church, the Coptic Church realizes that Italian is the mother tongue of many of its members. The fact that many young Copts primarily speak Italian in their daily lives, together with the integration discourse prevalent within the Coptic Orthodox Church in Italy, led to the textual practices of the community acquiring largely Italian character. Besides the translations of ritual books and those by Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Church in Italy has been active in publishing youth magazines in Italian. These include Tralci-Niklima (not active anymore) and Eccliseia periodicals. The former was an initiative by a group of young Copts led by HE Anba Barnaba, who envisaged a magazine that aimed at preserving Orthodox and particularly Coptic tradition and heritage, at the same time directed towards a wider audience from different Christian denominations. Eccliseia is a magazine published by the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Milan and was founded in 2018 under the auspices of HE Anba Antonio. It is primarily directed towards Coptic youth and it encompasses a wide range of translated and newly-written texts that aim at transmitting Coptic Orthodox teachings and values to second- and third- generation Copts living in Italy.
Although the textual practices of Italian Copts in the two respective dioceses are somewhat unified, there is still some space for individual churches and their leaders to follow the needs of their communities. This is particularly true for the geographically-diffused and socially-diverse diocese of Rome. In the case of several churches under the Roman diocese, textual practices reflect different social structures within the communities. For instance, parishes in Reggio Emilia and Catania use different liturgy books. For the community in Catania, consisted of numerous young Copts, as well as many Eritreans and Ethiopians (who thus do not speak Arabic) as well as a few converts to Coptic Christianity, Italian is the main lingua franca and its members use a trilingual euchologion in which Arabic and Coptic texts are transcribed in the Latin alphabet. On the other hand, the Reggio Emilia community hosts a larger number of senior Copts, as well as a considerable number of refugees, thus the liturgy book used in the parish has both Italian and Arabic texts in their original forms and the Coptic text transcribed in the Arabic script. In addition, parts of the Holy liturgy are translated into English for those community members who do not speak Arabic or Italian. Taking a closer look at the social structure of the Diocese of Milan, one can better understand language ideologies and textual practices of this community. The Milan community is older than those in other cities and hosts a larger number of the faithful born in Italy (including several priests raised in Italy), therefore it is logical that Italian holds a more prominent place and even dominates in certain areas of the church’s activities.
Adapting to new circumstances caused by migration and following the integration discourse have certainly put preservation of Arabic at risk. Coptic churches in Italy, like many other in the Coptic mahgar, deal with great difficulties when faced the challenge of preserving heritage from the homeland while inscribing themselves into the Italian society. Although much emphasis is given to translations and publishing in Italian, many members of the Coptic clergy in Italy are convinced that Arabic holds one of the central roles within Coptic tradition, which should also be preserved in the “land of immigration”. Thus, many efforts are directed towards securing that Arabic remains part of the parish every-day life and believers’ religious practices, such as providing Egyptian Arabic lessons, teaching Arabic tarānīm to the youngest members of the community born in Italy, and importing Arabic books from Egypt.
In most of the cases, Italian Copts juggle between three languages – Italian, Arabic, and Coptic. These three languages are sometimes used simultaneously (as is the case with liturgy), while in other contexts they are negotiated and prioritized differently in various public and private spheres (e.g., churches’ Facebook pages are largely in Arabic and official websites of both dioceses are solely in Italian). When it comes to integration and understanding what it means for the members of the community, whether clergy or lay Copts, narratives and discussions mostly revolve around the language. Adopting and mastering the Italian language is high on the list of priorities for the Coptic Orthodox Church in Italy. This priority stems from the need to actively (and sometimes symbolically) participate in the Italian social life, as well as to serve those who do not speak Arabic. It is important to note that members of Coptic communities across Italy have different levels of access, opportunities and resources to master Italian (often leading to the widespread opinion that Copts of Milan are ‘more integrated’ as they ‘are more educated and financially stable’).
Another important motive behind different strategies related to textual practices and language ideologies are transgenerational differences. The Coptic Church needs to balance the needs of different generations within the community, ranging from aiming at preserving Arabic as a direct link to the homeland (expressed and felt mostly by the first generation) to accepting Italian as the communal lingua franca and limiting the use of Coptic which usually does not resonate among those born in Italy. Although language preferences differ among generations and communities across the country, the Coptic Church is committed to fostering all three languages as indispensable parts of its evolving tradition. The use of Arabic over Italian, and vice versa, certainly have implications on how Italian Copts interpret their presence in the Italian society, while retaining links to the homeland. Stances towards language choices are divergent, and sometimes even polarizing, and reflect the community’s confrontation with the desire to ‘integrate’ and the need to save the language of the homeland from oblivion.
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Diocesi Copta di Milano. “Storia e Info.” https://www.diocesicoptamilano.com/la-chiesa-copta-ortodossa.html
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Nati dallo spirito. “Tralci-Niklima la rivista dei giovani copti italiani.” https://www.natidallospirito.com/2013/03/11/tralci-niklima-la-rivista-dei-giovani-copti-italiani/
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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.