The Habsburg Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire were two extremely different multi-ethnic states who were neighbours of each other for centuries, fighting or peaceful, up into the 20th century. Islam and Catholicism represented not only two great religions, but they were also the basis of the entire lives of people. Education, worldview, morals, judicial thinking were shaped by them.
During the 17th and 18th century, the Habsburg Monarchy reached more and more into southern Europe, while the Ottoman Empire was on the retreat. The last war between the two ended in 1792. Eventually, Austria’s influence went even to Egypt and into Sudan. In both countries, religion was equated with nation. Gradually, Austria assumed responsibility for the protection of Christians and hence, for building and maintaining churches, monasteries, schools, hospitals and homes for old people. The Monarchy was respected in Europe for its open-mindedness toward Islam, which, in 1912, even became a recognized religious community in Austria. So, it brought culture into the regions belonging to Europe’s former enemy. The Habsburg Monarchy used its internationally accepted function as a “protector” not to colonize Egypt or Sudan.
Egypt became a place where religious orders of many European countries settled. But even with only a handful of Catholic institutions, Austria was able to produce great cultural achievements. Since these religious or social institutions were not misused in a political sense, they did not seem suspect to the local political authorities. They were respected for what they were: a genuine support for the population.
There have been Catholic Christians in Egypt since the 17th century. They belonged to the foreign consulates. The patient work of European missionaries gradually led to the establishment of the Coptic Catholic Church. This church, in communion with Rome, exists even today, as a small minority compared to the large old Coptic Orthodox Church.
Most of the Coptic Catholics live in the middle of Egypt, in the dioceses Minya, Assyut, Sohag, Luxor and Ismailia. In contrast to the Coptic Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches, the Coptic Catholics have only one monastery in Egypt.
Short history of the Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt
- 1630: A Capuchin mission is founded in Cairo
- 1675: Jesuits start their missionary work in Egypt.
- 1741: The Coptic Orthodox bishop of Jerusalem, Athanasius, turns Catholic, and his diocese of 2000 members with him. His church retains much of its Coptic character.
- Bishop Athanasius converts back to the Orthodox Church, but the community remains Catholic.
- 1829: For the first time, Coptic Catholics are allowed by the Ottoman authorities to build their own churches in Egypt.
- 1893: The Franciscans give 10 churches in Egypt to the Coptic Catholics.
- 1895: There are 3 Coptic Catholic dioceses in Egypt. In addition to the 15 churches existing in these dioceses, a Coptic Catholic Church is built, with Austria’s financial help, in the diocese of Minya, in the village Berba. Even today, there is a memorial plaque above the church entrance: “Ex Munificentia Imperatoris ac Regis Apostolici Francisci Josephi 1895” (By the generosity of the Apostolic Emperor and King Francis Joseph, 1895)
- A hamlet of the village El Berba is called „Marko“, i.e., “The foreigner”. This goes back to a story that a teacher from South Tyrol has lived here and, reportedly, was buried here too.
- Small schools were connected to all these churches; many children frequented them.
- 1899: In the El Minya diocese, the church in El Berba and the school in the neighboring village, Beni Ebid, were finished. Churches were planned for Beni Ebeid and Mensafis, but they were not built any more.
Sources: Dorothea McEwan, Cairo: Habsburg als Schutzmacht der Katholiken in Ägypten; Cairo 1982; Schriften des Österr. Kulturinstituts Kairo, Band 3.