1 The Coptic Church and Italy
The term copt, initially without any confessional connotations, derives from the Arab term qutb, quft, qift, and more precisely from the Arab translation of the Greek term aiguptios imported through the Latin term cophti, cophtitae. At the beginning of the Arab domination along the Mediterranean African regions, this term indicated Egypt’s original inhabitants in order to distinguish them from rum, which was referred to those Egyptians of Greek-Byzantine origins.1 Copts were simply thought as Egyptians.
The Copts once formed a large Christian community, from the Nile to the Middle East to the Horn of Africa. They became a minority after the Muslim occupation of Egypt in the seventh century; they remained an integral part of the Egyptian world.
The relationship between Italy and the Coptic community in the Middle East is ancient and intense. Coptic recorded history ended around the fourteenth century (Ayad, 2016). In the fifteenth century, the Council of Florence, held between 1438 and 1445, decided to invite the first official delegation to Europe. The first Coptic manuscripts were introduced in Italy and soon the Copts were persuaded to submit to the papacy. In 1630, there were Copts in Italy although, on the whole, they were very reluctant to travel to Europe or, indeed, to travel at all (Hamilton, 2006). Nevertheless, the Coptic Diaspora showed that upward mobility could be achieved without loss of heritage identity (Mahmood, 2012). Until the nineteenth century there have not been many sources. Occasional sources from Arab authors or from Western travelers or pilgrims were the only available information. Gian Battista Brocchi (who visited Egypt in 1822–26), Alessandro Ricci (1817–22) and Ippolito Rossellini (1828–19) visited Egypt and reported about the Copts. These explorers, through their adventures, described the Coptic Churches they visited and explained the main theological differences between the Coptic Orthodox, the Coptic
2 Migrations and Presence
The migration fluxes in Italy were historically mainly from Egypt due to the persecutions and the violence against the Coptic community. Today, the presence of the Copts in Italy is supposed to be around 70,000 people scattered along the territory (International Congress of Coptic Studies, 2016; Ambrosiana Community Report, 2018). The majority is centered around the Milan area. The total number of the Copts in Italy remains quite obscure also because of the non-compulsory religious identity clarification in Italian censuses (Bottoni, 2019). In France, there are about 250,000 Copts, and in Great Britain 20,000. In total, Egyptian migrants in Italy are estimated to be around 119,000 (Istat, 2018), with the Copts representing almost one third of this total. The role of this religious community is very important: the Copts not only give to their parishioners, but they offer shelter to local communities, thus valorizing the churches and the places where they pray and live. Violence hits but does not prevail. The religious structure facilitates positive assimilation. Copts Churches are present on the Italian territory as follows: in Tuscany, Florence, St. Mina Coptic Orthodox church in Scandicci; in Lazio, St. George, and St. Mark in Rome; in Lombardy, monastery Anba Shenouda in Lacchiarella, St. Mary & St. Antonius in Cinisello Balsamo, St. Mark in Milan; in Piedmont, St. Mary, Turin.
The recent presence of the Copts in Italy dates back to the 1970s; pastoral activities started in those years, too. In 1973, the historical meeting between Pope Paul vi (1897–1978) and Shenuda iii, Pope of the Copts, marked the conclusion of a route that lasted fourteen centuries. Since 1982, the Copts have not
3 Terrorist Attacks and the Coptic Church in Italy
Since 2011, hundreds of Egyptian Copts have been killed in sectarian clashes, and many homes and businesses have been destroyed. In just one province (Minya in Egypt), 77 cases of sectarian attacks against Copts between 2011 and 2018 have been documented. Copts migrated to Italy from Egypt between 1952 and 1975 because they could not find jobs due to discrimination. Their wives could not go to a Coptic gynaecologist because Coptic gynaecologists could not practice – and this is just one of the examples of daily discrimination faced by Copts in Egypt. Equality did not exist at work or in the streets. If a woman was seen walking around wearing a cross, she would have to face harassment. It was forbidden to park cars outside of any church. Copts have been, and still are, strangers in their own country. In Egypt, rarely are documents released to Copts, and they prohibit people from converting to Christianity by putting them in jail. The terrorist attacks against Copts in Egypt during these recent years were all firmly condemned by the Italian governments and by the main religious communities. According to bishop al-Soryani, all Christians expressed their grief in the demonstration against the terroristic attacks in 2000 in Kosheh, where 21 Copts died, and on 7 January 2010 in Naga Hammadi, where eight Copts were shot dead in the Upper Egyptian city of Naga Hammadi, right in front of the cathedral. On that occasion, Italy condemned violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt, with Foreign Minister F. Frattini during his second mandate (2008–11) saying he would personally take up the matter with his Egyptian counterpart on a visit to Cairo. The violence perpetrated against the Christian Copt community in Egypt was horrific and outrageous after six Copts and one Muslim police officer were killed, apparently by Muslims, in the south of the country. At least nine more Copts were wounded, two of them seriously,
Rome was also ripe with Coptic reactions to the incident. Unlike Milan, the Rome diocese organized a January 2018 demonstration in support of Coptic Egyptians and against terrorism and religious discrimination. Criticism started before the event, when al-Soryani asked Muslims and Jews not to take part in the Repubblica Square sit-in, saying it was the wish of the Copts to mourn within their community. He invited them to organize a different demonstration.
While the Coptic tradition and presence constitutes an ancient and strong reality in Italy, today the majority of Italians are substantially ignoring Copts’ lives and activities. The striking lack of recent sources and information, compared to the richness of Middle Eastern sources of such a lively religious reality in Italy, is a symptom of the deep necessity for further research on this important topic. The history of religious and political persecutions and violence is a tragedy that affected all Copts, most of all in Egypt. Throughout their Diaspora history, the principle of unity as a nation represented Copts’ only hope, and it was only within the context of the nation-state that the point of unity could be possible across all the religious and cultural differences. The creation and the necessity for the definition of religious minorities was a dramatic passage in Christian Copts’ history. They refused to be classified as a religious minority and claimed the recognition of their identity not on a religious basis but on a
A special thanks to L. Zanfrini, G. Valtolina, A. Melcangi, R. Bottoni and P. Schellenbaum for their precious comments. Transcriptions and transliterations are here simplified and as in consulted sources and texts.