His Grace Anba Barnaba, Bishop of Rome, talks to Watani about the Copts in Italy and those in Egypt
The 1960s saw the first wave of immigrants leave Egypt. This came in the aftermath of the curtailment of private land ownership and the nationalisation of private businesses by Egypt’s then president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, heralding in a socialist system. Many land owners who had lost vast portions of their lands to the government, and business and industry owners whose projects had been nationalised felt threatened. A substantial proportion of them was Coptic. They left to the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia, forming the first nucleus of the Coptic Diaspora.
The Coptic Church saw the need to establish Coptic churches in places where there were significant numbers of Copts. In an interview with Watani in 2007, Pope Shenouida III said: “We now have some 120 churches in the United States. In Australia there are two Coptic bishops and more than 50 priests to serve the congregation. In the UK there are four bishops, two in France, two in Italy, one in Austria and one in Armenia. We have churches in Switzerland and Japan, and four in Black Africa.”
How it all started
Anba Barnaba, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of Rome, has been on a recent visit to Cairo. Watani seized the opportunity to talk to him. “Copts began coming to Italy in the 1970s to work in harvesting the fields and orchards. The idea was to work during the summer months then go back home. Some of these workers stayed on, however, and groups of Copts began settling in Italy. In 1982, the then Bishop-General Anba Pola conducted the first Coptic Mass while on a visit to Rome and, in 1984, Pope Shenouda III assigned the first Coptic priest—Father Benyamin al-Baramousi—to serve in Milan. The service spread; Fr Phillipos, Fr Pshoi, and Fr Mina joined in the service, and I was assigned to serve with Fr Mina in the early 1990s. In 1995 I was ordained Bishop-General of Rome and Turin, and Anba Kyrillos Bishop of Milan and Brescia. Today there are two Coptic parishes in Italy where 28 churches serve some 25,000 Copts. In Rome alone there are five Coptic churches.”
The Coptic Church in Italy, Anba Barnaba says, is eager to attract second and third generation immigrants, and to make them aware of their Egyptian and Christian heritage. “We teach them Egyptian and Coptic Church history as well as Church traditions and rituals. We tell them how important it is to adhere to their roots, and we believe we have been successful. Our services are conducted in Arabic, Italian, and Coptic, to make it accessible to the young.”
Italian Copts are encouraged to actively integrate in the community and participate in public life. “One of our young men,” Anba Barnaba says, “is nominating himself for the local government.”
Anba Barnaba, however, is not too eager for young Copts to marry into the Italian community. “Once this happens,” he explains, “countless problems ensue. We are not against mixed marriages; it’s just that we don’t prefer them. Cultural differences linger on, and the Copts frequently get separated from their Church. We arrange for five-day summer camps three times every summer, with a view to getting young Coptic-Italian men and women to socialise. Many form lasting relations that frequently end in marriage.”
Some mixed marriages are more often than not condemned to disaster, Anba Barnaba insists, as in case a Copt marries an Italian just to obtain the Italian citizenship. “In some cases they may not even be familiar with each others’ mother tongue. And the marriage may end up as an uneasy entanglement if they have a church wedding, meaning there’s no getting out of the relationship when it fails. The Coptic Church is strict on divorce rules, and the Catholic Church is even more so.”
Out of the frying pan and into the fire
Watani asked Anba Barnaba about illegal immigrants in Italy. His reply was a decisive opinion that illegal immigration was a misfortune which many young men pay for with their lives. “Last April I was asked by the local authorities to pray with a number of young men who had been caught as they tried to enter Italy illegally. One of them was the only survivor among some 79 men who drowned off the Italian shore. He told me the tragic tale of how the 80 young men left their homeland, placed on a small, dilapidated boat that barely accommodated them as they stood next to one another. They were shown the compass direction to Italy and left to fare for themselves. As they neared the Italian shore the waves rose and the boat filled with water. It finally capsized and, being the only one who could swim, he alone made it to safety. None of the bodies of the drowned men were found.”
Anba Barnaba believes the motive to take such a life threatening risk is the search for better living conditions. “When a young man reaches the age of 30 without any prospect of a bright future, he becomes desperate. A young man comes to us accompanied by an old woman whom he wishes to marry because it would help him get a visa into Italy. ‘Will you marry a woman as old as your grandmother?’ I ask him. ‘Why not,’ he says, ‘I’m 30; unable to find a good job or to buy a home.’ The stunning fact is that the large majority of these young people borrow large sums of money to finance their illegal immigration, sums that amount to EGP50,000 or 70,000. I don’t see why such money may not be used to help them start some business or enterprise at home.
“The Italian authorities now deal very strictly with illegal immigrants, so I strongly advise young people who would like to immigrate to Italy to take the legal path, especially that the labour market in Italy is not so accommodating. People form Eastern Europe are now plentiful in Italy; they are cheaper than Egyptians and, being a European Union country, Italy is under obligation to grant them priority in jobs.”
Pain to the extreme
Once an immigrant is legally in Italy, Watani asked, does he or she face any discrimination? “Discrimination is non-existent in the Italian community,” Anba Barnaba remarked. “The Italians respect their word and laws, and our community in Italy enjoys all the rights fellow Italians enjoy, including the freedom to worship.
“I frequently hear and read about the Copts here described as the ‘Copts abroad’. I’m not happy with this term; there is no such term as the ‘Muslims abroad’. We’re all Egyptian, and very proud of being so. We follow the news and events in Egypt and cannot be dismissive of them. The Nag Hammadi Christmas Eve crime which left six Copts and one Muslim dead, and the violent attack against the Copts in Marsa Matrouh which occurred last March pained us to the extreme. Worse, it came as a result of a sermon by the local mosque imam who, unjustifiably, incited the Muslims against the Copts.
“It is even more painful when we hear officials in Egypt discounting such events as mere individual incidents committed by mentally deranged or under-age persons and, more often than not, no culprit is brought to justice. This has been consistently taking place since the Kosheh incident in 2000 in which 20 Copts and one Muslim died and no-one was indicted, until the last attacks in Nag Hammadi and Marsa Matrouh. In the interval, horrendous attacks were waged against Copts such as in Alexandria in 2006, Ayyat in 2007, Abū-Fana in 2008, and countless others. What message is the Egyptian State sending to its citizens? That it’s all right to attack Copts? No-one will be punished for it?”
“When our families and friends in Egypt suffer so agonisingly,” Anba Barnaba says, “are we expected to look on as though it does not in the least concern us?
“Following the Nag Hammadi crime, the Copts in Italy took the spontaneous move of gathering and conducting a peaceful, respectful, demonstration in front of the Egyptian embassy in Rome. All we asked for was equal citizenship rights and justice for Copts in Egypt. Yet what was the result? The media in Egypt depicted it as a hostile act against the homeland.”
The media in Egypt reported on the demonstrations by commenting that Anba Barnaba was calling for foreign intervention to rescue Egypt’s Copts, “which we never did,” he says. “Our protest was in front of the Egyptian embassy, not any foreign institution, and our demands were directed to the Egyptian State.”
“And which brings us to the crucial issue of how the media—and sometimes official declarations—present inaccurate reports of the Copts outside Egypt to the Egyptian public. In one case the Egyptian ambassador in Rome courteously came to our church during Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve to wish the congregation a happy Christmas. He was accompanied by the imam of the mosque in Rome. The ambassador asked me to allow the Shaykh to say a word, a demand which, though highly unusual, I granted. So what would the Shaykh tell the congregation from the church pulpit on Christmas Eve? That ‘The Prophet Mohamed met Eissa (Jesus) in Paradise and asked him to become Muslim. Eissa accepted and asked to go back to Earth to preach Islam to Christians.’ When I later visited Egypt I discovered that the officials at the Foreign Ministry had been told that the Shaykh said these words in a sermon in the mosque during the Islamic occasion of al-Israa’ wal-Miraj which I was attending, and that I had flown into a tantrum about it. I was stunned; I never attended that occasion, and the Shaykh’s word had been said in public before hundreds of people in church.”
“Compare this,” Anba Barnaba says, “to what General Mohsen al-Nomani, the governor of Sohag, Upper Egypt, did. When a Shaykh described the late Shaykh Sayed Tantawi as a man who loved all people, even his enemies the Christians; the governor asked him to publicly apologise for branding Christians as ‘enemies’. We need more people like General Nomani.”
Watani reminded Anba Barnaba that the Egyptian government has presented reports to the International Human Rights Council claiming Copts in Egypt enjoyed full rights. His comment was that the Egyptian government sometimes behaved as though Egypt were isolated from the world. “Mufid Shehab, Minister of Legislative Council Affairs, recently said the government had issued approvals for the building of 134 churches. In fact, they are 34. There are international commissions that monitor religious freedom in various countries of the world, so the real situation of Copts in Egypt is no secret. The long-awaited unified law for building places of worship has not seen light. Attacks against Copts never end by bringing the culprits to justice, but matters are frequently patched up through the notorious ‘reconciliation sessions’ in which victims are made to sit with their attackers, ‘reconcile’ and, in the process, relinquish all their rights.
“It would be much better if the government would work to ameliorate the conditions of Copts; the entire world would directly see it.”
Is there any relationship between the Coptic Church outside Egypt and the Coptic associations abroad? Watani asked. The answer, according to Anba Barnaba, is an unequivocal ‘no’. “The Coptic associations are civic entities, while the Church is a religious entity; each has its specific domain. The associations are governed by the laws of the states they have been established in, and are absolutely independent of the Church.”
It was vital to hear Anba Barnaba on the relationship between the Church in Alexandria and the Church in Rome. “Pope Shenouda III paid the first visit ever by a Coptic pope to Rome in 1973 when he visited Pope Paul XI and they decided to open a dialogue between the two churches with a view to ending the centuries-old historic chasm between the eastern and western churches. In 1988, a document was signed by the two churches testifying to a unified vision on the nature of Christ. The dialogue has now been widened to include the Orthodox churches in Syria, Greece, Armenia, and Ethiopia, as well as all the Catholic churches.
“Talking about relations with religious institutions brings me to the topic of our relationship with the Islamic religious institution, which is an excellent one. We conduct dialogues on peace, tolerance, and compassion, which are all human values unequivocally embraced by all religions.”
Finally, what message did Anba Barnaba wish to send to all Egyptians? “Egyptian Muslims are Christians are no ‘two elements of one nation’,” he says. “We both form the distinctive Egyptian fabric. I demand of every Egyptian family, every teacher, and every official to work to spread the values of mutual acceptance, tolerance, and love. If hatred of the ‘other’ spreads in Egypt we all stand to lose. There will be no winners.”
As he bid us good-bye, Anba Barnaba thanked Watani, saying it was a “paper that faithfully conducted its mission, and is for us a reliable and credible source of information, especially now that there is Watani International which addresses readers outside Egypt. Every week we eagerly await the editorial by Youssef Sidhom on the problems placed on hold in Egypt.”