Coptic artist Fadi Mikhail was born in 1984 to Egyptian immigrant parents in Harlow, England. Mikhail studied in Los Angeles under the renowned Egyptian iconographer Isaac Fanous before graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art in London. His interest in iconography, as Mikhail recounts, “certainly began as a religious connection but has more recently become equally a part of my identity as an Egyptian.” Today, he produces icons for Coptic churches around the world and his art is considered as a visual bridge between East and West.
Mikhail’s parents, Hany and Salwa, emigrated from Egypt in the late 1970s. His father pursued his career as a doctor in the UK. “The promise of higher pay and a better life called to him,” said Mikhail. In recent years, Mikhail and his wife return to Egypt only occasionally for vacation. However, like many Copts around the world, he feels that “through the church I do still feel strongly connected to the Coptic faith and, by extension, to Egypt.”
Coptic Orthodox immigration to Europe began in the mid-twentieth century. As Matija Miličić described in a series for Egypt Migrations, the first communities in Europe were primarily founded in the United Kingdom and expanded into France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and the Netherlands. Recently, Copts have also established communities in Spain and Hungary as well. Yet reliable sources for the number of Copts outside Egypt are few and not necessarily precise.
Permanent emigration to Europe began in the 1950s and increased in conjunction with President Nasser’s Pan-Arab reform policies. The nationalization of assets across Egypt benefited middle and low class Copts. However, elite Copts lost approximately 75 percent of their lands and properties, leading to a deterioration of social and economic conditions. Many Coptic migrants were well-educated and highly-skilled professionals who sought out a higher quality of living and professional advancement. Under the guidance of Pope Kyrillos VI and later Pope Shenouda, communities flourished. Migrations steadily increased particularly in the wake of the open door policy introduced by President Anwar Al-sadat, a period characterized by the easing of travel restrictions and obstacles to emigration, as well as broader societal islamization.
Requirements for a visa to immigrate to European countries usually favor those with resources and of the professional classes. Proficiency in foreign languages and kin networks (relatives settled abroad) aided the process considerably. The result was the creation of large Orthdox Coptic communities in Europe, whose members established active churches and engaged in a variety of careers, including medicine, engineering, trade, and commerce. Possessing Egyptian citizenship, by naturalization or by birth, new generations like Mikhail may not have full command of Arabic and define themselves as European nationals, yet many still maintain strong ties to their homeland and to their Copticity.
More recent Coptic Orthodox migrations to Europe follow similar patterns to other destinations where Copts have settled. Aside from the economic push and pull factors, Copts have also had to contend with societal exclusion and discrimination in a Muslim majority country which resulted in greater migration flows when compared to their Egyptian Muslim counterparts. More recently, following the 25 January revolution in 2011, the ascent of political Islam to power under the Muslim Brotherhood prompted many to emigrate. Fears of greater marginalization and rising inter-religious tension between Muslims and Copts were accompanied by a series of sectarian attacks against Coptic churches across Egypt such as the Prince Tadros Coptic Church in Minya, the Mary Guirguis Church in Sohag and St. Mary Church in Fayoum. This state of affairs led to a spike in Coptic emigration from Egypt.
Egyptian scholarship, often underutilized, sheds a great deal of light on the migrations since the revolution. According to migrationist Ayman Zohry, rising sectarian strife in Egypt after the revolution directly correlates with the increasing number of Christian Egyptians who have left the country. Further, Zohry cites a study conducted in 2013 by Girgis and Osman, which found that Christians reported contemplating migration after the revolution far more than Muslims, a figure of 75 percent compared to 38 percent. Despite the absence of official statistics on this phenomenon, a study by Soliman Shafeeq in the same year indicated that about 100,000 Christian Egyptians left voluntarily after the Revolution for destinations in Europe and North America. In fact, in the same study, the German ambassador in Cairo confirmed that Christian Egyptian applications for asylum in Germany tripled between 2011 and 2013.
There may be currently an estimated two million Copts scattered across Europe, the US, Canada, and Australia. For those migrants, “the sense of home” includes a variety of interrelated aspects such as the quality of life, educational opportunities, freedom of expression and religious practices, as well as the ability to build and expand physical expressions of their faith through church-building. At the same time, Coptic immigrants are still grounded in their Egyptian roots and Coptic heritage, which keeps them tied to the homeland. Material and emotional connections keep them coming ‘home’ on occasion, and their origins remain an indispensable element of their identity.
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Amira Elmasry is a Writing Intern with Egypt Migrations. She studied Economics and Political Science at Alexandria University and has been working in the development field for three years in areas related to Gender, Refugees and Migrants, and Education. Amira aims to promote a culture of dialogue, the value of acceptance of others, and peaceful coexistence through her initiative “OHANA” which educates refugee and Egyptian children about peace and non-violent communication.