Coptic Church of the Virgin Mary
Eglise Copte Orthodoxe
de la Vierge Marie
Rue Virginio-Malnati 35
|Type of building:||Coptic Orthodox church|
|Area:||900 m2 (building) - 1529 m2 (land)|
|Building height:||16 m|
|Cost:||CHF 3.5 million|
|Owners:||Comité Eglise Copte Orthodoxe de la Vierge Marie|
|Architects:||Michel Louis, Raouf Morcos|
|Start of construction:||November 2000|
|Construction period:||4 years|
|Inauguration:||12th July 2004|
|Religious tradition:||Coptic Orthodox Christianity|
|Conception through to inauguration:||10 years|
The train station Vernier-Meyrin is a short local train journey from Geneva's main station. Continuing on foot towards Meyrin along the Chemin du Grand Puits, passing some factories and later a residential area, one finally turns left onto the Rue Virginio-Malnati. There is no sign of a Coptic church at first, but after 150 metres one comes across a small turret covered in shingles on one of the roofs. One is now standing before a building complex made up of two annexes. It immediately becomes clear a two-story apartment building is attached to the church, in keeping with the surrounding buildings. Quite unlike the eye-catching church, with its grand wooden entrance and pillared porch. A few steps further into the entrance reveal a sign in Arabic inviting visitors to enter.
«Before we were able to build this church, the Coptic community in Geneva and surrounding areas worshipped in different churches, and even sometimes in basic warehouses», says founder Raouf Morcos.This tedious wandering sparked the desire for a church of their own. Then Morcos received some crucial information from his friends in the religious community. «I heard that there was a plot for sale in Meyrin with an old eighteenth century church… It couldn't be demolished, and so I made the suggestion to renovate the church.» However, more detailed planning revealed that more changes were needed than had initially been thought – with related costs.
On the initiative of Morcos and the architect Michel Louis, funds began to be raised. A leaflet entitled «The development of the first Coptic church in Switzerland» was printed in several languages and distributed by the community in Switzerland and abroad. Morcos recalls: «We received all the money from private contributors, and raised two million francs in seven years. We arranged a bank loan for the remaining 1.5 million.» Renovation could finally begin in November 2000, along with development of the adjacent building. Renovations took several years, as much of the work was done by the community themselves, and much of the material came directly from Egypt. Finally however, the Coptic cross was erected on the steeple, shortly before the inauguration of the church. On 12th July 2004 Pope Schenouda III, spiritual leader of the Coptic church, consecrated the Church of the Virgin Mary. Morcos says «I am very happy and proud!» of the renovations.
The adaptation and renovation of this old Roman Catholic church from the eighteenth century gives the building a special atmosphere. The church has been lovingly renovated, with real attention to detail, and Coptic-Orthodox symbols and element have been integrated into the existing building. «The fact that the renovation of the old house of worship was so well managed fills the Coptic community of Meyrin with great pride.» notes Raouf Morcos during our tour of the church, pointing out a place in the church wall where the original foundations can still be seen.
Raouf Morcos is originally from Egypt. He has been living in Switzerland since 1977, and became a Swiss citizen in 1995. He now runs an Egyptian trading company in Geneva. Together with the architect Michel Louis, Morcos could be described as the father of the idea to give the Coptic-Orthodox Church its own religious centre in western Switzerland. He has led the project from its initial conception through to the opening of the building, and is to this day involved in a variety of acitivities within the church community. Father Mikhail Megally and Michel Louis are currently responsible for the site.
The church's relationship with the neighbours is good, says Morcos, and assures us that Father Mikhail Megally, who as the priest lives in the adjacent building with his family, maintains good and open dealings with the villagers. Only one problem remains open, explains Morcos: «The only problem is with parking. We have too few parking spaces, and so on a Sunday, when more than a hundred worshipers come to church, they have to park in spaces belonging to the neighbours. This has led to disagreements.» They are working with the neighbours and the council, however, to find a solution.
The Coptic Church can be described as the national Christian Church of Egypt. The word Copt is derived from the Arabic «qibt,» which, in turn derives from the Greek Aigyptios, meaning «Egyptians».
The origins of Christianity in Egypt remain unclear. According to tradition, Saint Mark established the Coptic Church, as the first Bishop of Alexandria. Through the establishment of the Catechetical School, St. Mark created a spiritual centre for Christianity in Egypt. Rooted in this Egyptian tradition, the Coptic Church has been an independent denomination since the first century, and remains heavily influenced by the monastic tradition to this day. Although the Coptic Church is commonly referred to as (and names itself) Coptic Orthodox, it is not Orthodox in a strict sense. It broke with the Byzantine church after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, though less for theological reasons as for Coptic rejection of the Hellenistic cultural influences. Theologically, the Coptics were accused by the Church of the Byzantine Empire Church of following monophysitism, the doctrine that the person Jesus Christ was only of divine nature, rather than having a divine and human nature at the same time. This accusation was only retracted in 1984, after a joint declaration by Pope John Paul II and the Syrian-Orthodox patriarch Mar Ignatius Zakka II.
Muslim-Arab domination after the seventh century put the Coptic Church in a new, often difficult position. The relationship between Islam and Christianity fluctuated between tolerance and persecution until the nineteenth century. The apparition of the Virgin Mary at Zeitoun in Egypt, the return of relics of St Mark in 1968 and the consecration of St Mark's Cathedral brought a new wave of enthusiasm to the Coptic Church.
The liturgy and ceremonials of the Coptic Church have preserved some archaic features to this day. The liturgy of St Basil is most commonly used, and services are most commonly held in a mixture of Arabic and Coptic, supplemented by the local language. Like the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the Coptic Church has seven sacraments. Men, women and children take part in the Eucharist, and worshippers are actively involved through, call and response, rituals and sung and silent prayers.
The head of the Coptic Church, officially titled «Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of Saint Mark», has been officially based in Cairo since 1971. Since the death of Pope Shenouda III in March 2012, the office has been held by Pope Tawadros II (since November 2012), who is considered the 118th direct successor of Saint Mark. The global Coptic community is divided into forty eparchies (diocese), made up of 10 to 12 million members. In Switzerland, regular Bible study for the Coptic community began in 1962, before Father Serapion became the first official Coptic priest in Switzerland on 6th May 1984. Under his leadership, subsequent years saw the development and expansion of church services in Switzerland. Today, the centres of the Coptic Church in Switzerland are in the Church of Saint Mark in Zurich, the satellite Church of Saint Mark and Saint Mauritius in Dietlikon and the Church of The Virgin Mary in Geneva. The Coptic community in Switzerland is around 800 strong.
Text : Edwin Egeter
Photos : Edwin Egeter
«Cupola – Temple – Minaret» is a Project by the Center for Research on Religions, Lucerne
Last updated: 5th November 2015
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