A minority within a minority – Middle Eastern Christians in Denmark

by Marta Wozniak

Alistair’s January wish for more sun in Denmark has been heard and granted – we had the most pleasant weather you can imagine for our fieldsite exchange visit in Copenhagen (25-27 April), followed by our third project meeting in Helenekilde (28-29 April). However, it was not only the meteorological conditions, but first and foremost an interesting programme, which made our stay so fruitful.

On early Friday afternoon our Danish hosts – Lise and Sara – warmly welcomed the rest of the DIMECCE team (Fiona, Alistair, Danielle and me) in the heart of Copenhagen and took us for a walk to discover the superdiversity of Nørrebro, one of the most multicultural areas of the Danish capital. We noticed instantly a certain number of signs in Arabic and Turkish advertising restaurants, goldsmiths, hairdressers, financial services, and sales of jellabiyas. Several Muslim ladies wearing different hijabs passed us by, some of them on their bicycles, which is the Danes’ favourite way to commute. As it was just after the Friday noon prayers we could see men leaving the modest building used as a mosque – Masjid Al-Nour (Mosque of Light). The whole area seemed to be popular with people from diverse backgrounds, who sat in front of cosy restaurants. Lise told us that lots of effort was made to transform what was once not the safest neighbourhood into a place bustling with life.

Multicultural area of Nørrebro

Multicultural area of Nørrebro

Since there are not as many Middle Eastern Christians in Denmark as in the UK or Sweden, Lise and Sara organised a visit to the Islamic Christian Study Center (Islamisk-Kristent Studiecenter, IKS), founded in 1996 by both Christians and Muslims to facilitate and encourage interfaith dialogue. We had a very interesting meeting at the IKS offices with Rev. Lissi Rasmussen. She told us that this unique organisation has evolved ‘from talking to doing things together’. The dialogue group is still active, analysing and discussing the sacred texts, but these days the social work comes first: volunteers help people in need, often of Middle Eastern origin, in hospitals and prisons.

On Saturday afternoon, we had a thought-provoking conversation with a young woman belonging to the Chaldean Catholic Church in Denmark. Thanks to the presence of Nora (Danish team research assistant), who is of Lebanese origin, and Danielle (Swedish team research assistant), who is of Syrian origin, we had an exceptional opportunity to discover some similarities and differences in outlook among young Christians from the Middle East of different national origins. While the Church traditions differ, the aspiration of high educational achievement and personal development is very similar – young Christian women whose parents come from the Middle East often make the best of the possibilities European countries can offer.

DIMECCE team in Copenhagen

DIMECCE team: Danielle Barsoum Malki, N. Neaman, Marta Wozniak, Lise Paulsen Galal, Sara Lei Sparre, Fiona McCallum, Alistair Hunter

On Sunday Lise and Sara drove us to Taastrup – 20 km outside Copenhagen – where St. Maria & St. Markus Coptic Orthodox Church is located. The white building (see photo below) used to serve a Roman Catholic congregation but its present interior furnishings (e.g. wooden altar screen, icons, holy relics of St George and Abu Sufyan) were all brought from Egypt. We came punctually at 9 am being the first there aside from the priest but soon the church started to fill up. We were asked to remove our shoes which is a Coptic tradition based on Exodus 3:5 (God said to Moses to remove his sandals from his feet, for the place where he is standing is holy ground). Interestingly, some people used plastic covers for their shoes. The mass, which was performed in Arabic with some Coptic and English (the latter being to include the youth who do not understand Arabic very well), lasted about 3 hours. In addition, Danish translations of the liturgy were projected on screens above the pews and occasionally via headphones. The people attending came from different places in Denmark – and some had even crossed over the Øresund Bridge from southern Sweden. We were also  intrigued to find that others had close ties with the Coptic Orthodox Church in the Scottish fieldsite of Kirkcaldy. Not all were Copts – some participants belonged to the Syriac Orthodox Church and/or had an Iraqi background. After the mass, a tasty lunch was served in a nearby hall; it was a celebratory occasion as two young children had birthdays and an adult member of the congregation had just acquired Danish citizenship. We mingled with the church members and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere – certainly, it was a close knit community.

Church exterior and interior

St. Maria & St. Markus Coptic Orthodox Church

We spent our two last days in Denmark at the charming seaside resort of Helenekilde. Aside from having our project meeting there, our schedule included an interview with Doris Peschke from our partner institution, the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME), who added a precious practical perspective to our theoretical one. We also had the pleasure of listening to an informative presentation by one of our Advisory Board members, Professor Margit Warburg (University of Copenhagen) about the Danish model for recognizing faith communities. Among other things, we learned that although 79% of the Danish population belongs to the Danish Lutheran Church, the proportion of Danes who self-identify as religious is rather lower.

DIMECCE team in Helenkilde

In Helenekilde: Fiona McCallum, Lise Paulsen Galal, Alistair Hunter, Marta Wozniak, Sara Lei Sparre, Margit Warburg, Doris Peschke (CCME)

To understand better the situation of Middle Eastern Christians in Denmark, one must remember that they constitute a minority within a minority. Far more numerous are the migrant workers (and their families) who arrived from Turkey, Pakistan and Morocco in the 1970s, followed by refugees from Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia in the 1980s and 1990s. This numerical weight has led to recognition, including from the national Lutheran Church. In comparison to the situation in the UK or Sweden, Middle Eastern Christians in Denmark have far fewer activities, primarily due to the smaller size of the congregations. Despite this – or even because of this – their internal dynamics are worth exploring. We are very grateful to Lise and Sara for introducing us to these communities!

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