This is the second part of the two-part series on the Coptic communities in Italy. In this series, I presented two areas where Coptic communities in Italy face challenges regarding preservation of tradition while adapting to migration-related circumstances. In the first part, I highlighted the role of textual practices and language choices as the Church’s strategy to cope with various challenges it faces while inscribing itself into the Italian society. In the second piece, I 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.
Acquiring Church Buildings
As is the case with many other migrant communities, Copts have sought to maintain and continue to practice their faith in countries they immigrated to. Over the years, this continuation has been institutionalized as many Coptic churches have been established outside of Egypt. The Church has faced numerous challenges in order to secure an active religious life and preserve spirituality of its members in the land of immigration. When coping with these challenges, many aspects of the social and legal realities of the Coptic community in Italy (and elsewhere) are defined by its minority status. In these circumstances, the Church and its members are often compelled to compromise, invent and revisit the meanings of their tradition.
One of the leading challenges of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Italy is related to the issue of acquiring places of worship. Naturally, this is also one of the first challenges that a young migrant Coptic community faces. Finding themselves in a new country, Copts need to find a place where they can perform liturgy, preserve their spirituality and organize Sunday school education.
The first places of worship used by Italian Orthodox Copts in the 1970s and 1980s were different rented private rooms and Catholic chapels. Understandably, due to limitations in financial resources, early Coptic communities could not afford to buy or build their own church buildings. The first clergy members sent to Italy, together with their followers, had to become familiar with legal regulations and social dynamics related to finding and acquiring places of worship, and specifically to understand their status as a religious minority vis-à-vis the Catholic church.
Today, we can see two practices related to acquiring places of worship that dominate in the case of the Coptic community in Italy. These are renting Catholic churches/chapels and buying and transforming unused public or private venues. Here, it needs to be noted that Copts in Italy usually do not build their own churches, neither do they buy unused Catholic church buildings. The two main reasons for the former are related to the lack of financial resources and bureaucracy. Having limited financial support, these communities are rarely able to buy a large piece of land and build their own Coptic church “from scratch”. Not to mention, building a church is usually a very long and tiresome process, accompanied by various legal and practical obstacles. As for not buying Catholic churches, the main reason is that a large number of unused church buildings have the status of a heritage site and are protected by the state. Thus, the local Catholic Church, which holds a special position in the country according to the Italian constitution (vis-à-vis other religious communities), in most of the cases does not sell its buildings to minority Christian denominations, including the Copts. This certainly aggravates the Copts’ path towards securing fixed places of worship, as well as it leads to sentiments of inequality and inferiority. Although it is clear that Copts are a minority in Italy, their limited legal recognition and legally (as well as culturally) inferior status vis-à-vis the Catholic church mean a more challenging route to fully-inscribing themselves into the Italian society. Aside the ecumenical tendencies, the Coptic Church is thus committed to maintaining close ties with the Catholic Church given the important role it plays in the country.
If we take a look at the two Coptic Orthodox dioceses in Italy, we can notice a difference when it comes to church buildings they utilize. Churches used by the parishes belonging to the Diocese of Milan (including the monastery) are mostly transformed abandoned venues, such as factories, garages, and other types of buildings. These transformed spaces are owned by the Church. In the words of one of my interlocutors who is a clergy member, the Church saves those abandoned places and transforms them into Coptic places of worship. This, also, represents the fastest way of obtaining a church building since the Church does not want to keep the faithful without a place of worship for a long time. It is widely believed in the community that it is better that these abandoned venues become Christian places of worship than to become buildings that cater other religions or places for secular use, such as hotels or clubs. More than anything else, abandoned buildings run the risk of becoming places for various illegal activities. This is the case with one of the churches within the Diocese which was bought as an abandoned gym and had been previously used as a drug dealing spot. Thus, by creating a church of such a site, Copts ‘rescue’ an impure space and make it sacred, at the same time benefitting the local population.
Turning to the Diocese of Turin and Rome, we encounter a different story. The main place of worship in Rome, St. George Coptic Orthodox church, is a transformed church that used to be a garage. In addition, the building of the un-official monastery that serves as bishopric was initially bought as a villa. Aside the main church and the bishopric, parishes across the Roman diocese mainly make use of unused Catholic chapels. To this we can add the St. Mark Coptic church in Milan, originally Pope Celestine V Catholic church, whose building cannot be bought as it has a protected status. Many of my interlocutors across different churches of the Roman diocese, both clergy and lay members, expressed their regret that they “do not own churches they use” and often compared themselves to Copts belonging to the Milanese diocese with regard to the ownership of church buildings. In some cases, Copts under the Roman diocese co-use churches with local Catholic communities or rent small Catholic chapels attached to the main church buildings, for an affordable price.
When trying to understand the differences in how these two dioceses acquire their places of worship, one needs to take a closer look at their own historical trajectories, structures of the two communities and intra-communal developments. Since the Copts’ earliest presence in Italy, Milan, the country’s administrative and business capital, has been the major destination for immigration. Related to this, many Copts who settled in and around Milan, have secured solid jobs and were able to financially support their diocese. Thus, an early and accelerated migration in a smaller geographical space, with a group of faithful that succeeded in integrating itself well in the local job-market, contributed considerably to the development of the diocese, thus making it financially and organizationally-equipped for securing their own places of worship. Unlike the Diocese of Milan, its ‘sister diocese’ in Rome still faces substantial challenges when it comes to organizational and practical issues. With its isolated churches across the whole country, smaller and diffused groups of believers, and more diverse social structure (including numerous asylum-seekers and low-middle class members of the community), Coptic Orthodox diocese of Rome lacks the necessary means to conduct its activities properly and swimmingly and further develop, including purchasing buildings that would be transformed into Coptic churches.
Even though Copts in Italy (like in many other countries) do not own or use churches that are characterized by the architectural style of those in Egypt, there is plenty of space for creativity and innovation. One of the main goals of migrant Coptic communities is to make new places of worship “as Coptic as possible”. This can mean painting or hanging Coptic icons (in their widest sense) on walls, having a Coptic iconostasis, relics of the patron saints, Sunday school classrooms and small bookshops, among other things. However, challenges of creating such a space are greater if the building used by the community was not originally a church or if it was rented, thus unable to be changed or modified greatly. In the case of rented Catholic churches, Italian Copts compromise by hanging various icons or posters that do not damage the walls, insert a removable iconostasis, and if possible, provide a space for social gatherings after the liturgy. In the other case, Copts need to invent and reconstruct venues that used to be factories in order to serve as new Coptic churches. Copts of Milan proudly remember the late Anba Kirolos (d. 2017) and his innovative projects regarding the reconstruction of venues that later became Coptic churches. According to many, Anba Kirolos, an engineer by training, was a creative and inventive leader who was able to give life to abandoned buildings and provided his flock with places where they could preserve their faith. The late bishop is thus sometimes referred to as “our spiritual engineer” by the members of the community.
In both cases, Italian Copts face obstacles en route to obtaining their own places of worship. The process of finding a place to celebrate liturgy is troublesome due to various practical, financial and legal issues. However, in order to maintain their faith, preserve a sense of spirituality among their communities, and to transmit Coptic tradition from Egypt to those born and raised in Italy, both Coptic Orthodox bishops in Italy, Anba Antonio and Anba Barnaba, show persistence, patience and readiness to compromise in their daily projects. Although Copts strive for acquiring their own church buildings, in the circumstances of limited and scarce resources, Copts reinvent and recontextualize the original meaning of the church. In a conversation with a Coptic priest serving in Rome who told me about a private space used for the liturgy once a week by a local parish, I was told that “the church is not a building. It is a group of Christians gathered to pray together and that is what matters.”
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Diocesi Copta di Milano. “Storia e Info.” https://www.diocesicoptamilano.com/la-chiesa-copta-ortodossa.html
Diocesi Copta di Roma. “La comunità copta ortodossa in Italia.” http://www.coptiortodossiroma.it/coptiitalia.html
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.