Ireland’s Copts all set to celebrate Christmas
Drumcondra church ready to mark nativity this Sunday in line with Julian calendar
Fr Rewas Anba Bishoy celebrates Mass at Saints Maximus and Domadius Coptic Church on St Alphonsus Road, Dublin. Photograph: Shawn Pogatchnik
You may think Christmas is done and dusted for another year, but in the Coptic corners of Ireland, the greatest celebration of the season arrives at midnight on Saturday.
January 7th is the true Christmas for Egypt’s Coptic Church and a handful of other Orthodox Christian denominations that still observe the Julian calendar discarded by the West four centuries ago. Across Ireland, these immigrant families annually observe a cultural balancing act of two Christmases that puts faith, family and the forces of assimilation to the test.
At Saints Maximus and Domadius Coptic Church in Drumcondra, the Christmas tree at the entrance and the nativity scene in the corner remain bedecked in blazing lights – and boys and girls still must wait a few hours more for Santa’s gifts to arrive, delivered in person, in the earliest hours of Sunday.
First comes a three-hour service concluding at midnight, when the Copts finally end a 43-day vegan fast and gather for a meal featuring all the food they’ve denied themselves since November: meats, cheeses, milk and chocolates.
“After the liturgy we will all sit and eat together for hours. Santa will come to bring presents to every child,” says Fr Rewas Anba Bishoy, the priest who oversees twice-weekly services in a former Roman Catholic convent chapel purchased by the Coptic Church in 2014. “We recognise Santa as a symbol for a real saint, St Nicholas.”
Fr Rewas hasn’t cut his beard in two decades since leaving a desert monastery between Cairo and Alexandria, where the church claims St Mark as its founder in 43 AD. The 51-year-old priest arrived in Ireland seven years ago to help shepherd about 300 Coptic families who live across the island.
“I knew nothing about Ireland except that it was beside England. I soon discovered that it was extremely cold but the people are wonderful, extremely warm,” says Fr Rewas, who dons robes of white and black featuring a cowl that covers his shaven head.
Many Dubliners mistake him for a Muslim, despite the fact his uniform features a prominent crucifix around his neck and a dozen more crosses on his cowl, symbolising Jesus’s disciples.
The confusion carries an edge of irony, as the Copts have struggled to defend their faith since the Muslim conquest of Egypt some 13 centuries ago. Extremists have assaulted Egypt’s Christian minority regularly, including a series of bomb, gun and knife attacks over the past year.
The most recent strike on December 29th by a lone gunman left eight dead outside a Coptic church and a nearby Coptic-run shop south of Cairo.
Virtually all of Ireland’s Copts have parents, siblings and other relatives in Egypt, travel back and forth at least once a year, and pray regularly for their safety amid Egypt’s tense security environment. They take heart from the Muslim solidarity shown by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who in 2015 became the first Egyptian leader to visit a Coptic cathedral at Christmas and has returned for the past two years.
“The fanatics seek to kill Copts to embarrass the government, to give the impression that it’s not protecting Christians. But President el-Sisi goes to our church at Christmas. This is a big step forward and, overall, the situation is improving,” says Dr Samir Gendy, a church deacon who came to Ireland in 2000 to study medicine.
He’s since worked as an eye, nose and throat surgeon at the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast, Temple Street in Dublin and now at a hospital in Bristol, commuting between England and Ireland each weekend.
“The extremists want us to carry guns to protect ourselves,” Gendy says. “We will die but we will never carry a weapon to offend anyone. This is what Jesus has taught us. Our faith shows us that our life on Earth is a transient one, everyone is looking to eternal life, so Copts will sacrifice their lives for what they believe in. You go to church, unafraid of what may happen.”
A first-time Catholic visitor to the Coptic church in Drumcondra encounters an intriguing blend of the familiar, the forgotten and the foreign. The entire three-hour service is sung or chanted in a carousel of English, Arabic and Coptic, the ancient language that survives today chiefly in the church’s own services.
Deacons spanning ages from young children to grandfathers walk back and forth from the front pews to the altar to join Fr Rewas in leading prayers, readings and hymns. Other deacons use clanging cymbals and a triangle to keep the congregation speaking in rhythm.
One deacon keeps tapping a tablet computer to broadcast a live script of the liturgy displayed in three parallel columns of English, Coptic and Arabic on two widescreen TVs flanking the altar. In the left-hand pews sit the men, the deacons in front. To the right sit the women, who don headscarves decorated with images of the Virgin Mary.
The sign of peace, when most Christians shake hands, becomes a more elaborate event in the Coptic style. Worshippers face each other with hands together in prayer, then open their hands and overlap them with the other’s hands. Each slowly pulls their hands away in a gliding motion.
Fr Rewas conducts most of the service facing the altar away from the congregation, entering the pews only to spread incense, flick holy water and to distribute Communion. This, too, comes with a twist as men and women alike use handkerchiefs to cover their mouths after taking the bread, then drinking the consecrated wine from a single silver chalice at the back.
As the epic service ends, and everyone takes their turn to share a communal loaf of bread with Fr Rewas, it becomes clear just how important the church is for Egyptian Christians in Ireland.
This is their second home and the twice-weekly meeting place for their wider family. Everyone knows each other. The adults chat for hours over strong tea and light snacks as children form several age-specific Sunday school groups that spread throughout the church.
“For us, Christmas is all about the birth of Christ, but we do exchange gifts here. Each Sunday school has their own Secret Santa going on,” says Mariam Ibrahim (20), who followed her parents to Ireland at age four and today is pursuing a degree in pharmaceutical and biomedical chemistry in Maynooth with hopes some day to treat neurological disorders.
Like most of the second-generation Egyptian immigrants to Ireland, Ibrahim speaks flawless Dublin-accented English and feels no difficulty balancing her Egyptian traditions and Irish identity, embracing both Christmases in the process.
“We absolutely respect the Catholic Christmas. We go and attend Mass. It’s not like it’s a totally different religion,” says Ibrahim as she watches one group of children learning religious lessons in the baptismal room, where young and old alike are welcomed into the church with full immersion, head to toe.
The overwhelmingly white-collar professional make-up of the Drumcondra congregation bears testimony to the critical role of highly skilled immigrants in Ireland.
Virtually all adults have attained or are pursuing advanced degrees and serve as doctors and other medical specialists, engineers and accountants. Many arrive in Ireland via satellite programmes run by Irish universities in the Middle East or Canada.
Remoun Ramzy, a 42-year-old engineer who learned his craft helping to construct tunnels for Cairo’s vast subway system, came to Ireland in 2002 to help build the Dublin Port Tunnel. He’s just returned to Ireland, to become a consultant for Irish Water, after 18 months working in Australia.
Three of his sons – Karas (4), Raphael (9) and Tomas (14) – don the white deacon’s robes to play their part helping Fr Rewas.
Raphael, who has been a deacon since age three, says he particularly enjoys reading the prayers from books on the altar and lighting the incense. He hasn’t received any Christmas presents but is hoping Santa will bring him something tonight.
“A laptop,” he says with a smiling, hopeful glance at his father.
Observing, Fr Rewas leans across the table: “Raphael, tell Santa to bring a laptop for me too.”
Laughter builds as the elder Ramzy counters, “I think we need a richer Santa!”