As Deacon Antoun Salama stands among the ladders and paint tins in the stark interior of the almost-completed church, he describes how a beautiful iconostasis from Egypt will adorn the altar. A magnificent icon of the Twelve Apostles will also decorate the sweeping arch above the altar, he says.
“It’s a dream for everyone to have a church like this. The icons, the seats, the altar, will all be made in Egypt.”
The construction of the very first Coptic Catholic church in Australia is a dream currently coming true before the eyes of the small community of Sydney Catholics who originally migrated from Egypt.
St Mark’s Coptic Catholic Church in the outer western Sydney suburb of Prospect is currently under construction. It is expected to be officially opened in January 2019 by the Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria himself—Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak—who will travel from Cairo for the occasion.
Ever since the community acquired the property in 1994, with the help of the Diocese of Parramatta, they have been raising funds to build their church. In the meantime they have been celebrating Mass in a large room within the presbytery, where they also hold catechism classes for children.
Deacon Salama says about 70 families come to Mass there every Sunday.
After obtaining a loan from the Parramatta Diocese the community was able to start building their church two years ago. So far the project has cost $3 million.
“This has been a long-awaited dream,” said Deacon Salama’s son Moheb, who is St Mark’s youth leader. “Not just mine but the entire community and at last we’re almost there. We can see the finish line.”
“This is the only church we have in Australia. We’ve got another church in Melbourne but we don’t own the building.
“Without having a physical Coptic Catholic church it’s very hard for us to identify as Coptic Catholics. Every single parishioner feels the same way and when we contribute financially to the building it’s like we’re contributing to the building of our own home.”
The new church will hold five to six hundred people and will have a baptistry, complete with hot and cold water for full-immersion baptisms, a crying room and two sacristies—one for priests and another for deacons and acolytes.
Beneath the new church will be a large multi-purpose hall containing classrooms, a fully-equipped kitchen and a high-tech sound system.
“This is our dream come true, our first church in Australia,” said Yvonne Hanna, one of the earliest members of St Mark’s community. She migrated from Egypt in 1973.
Coptic Catholics are a tiny minority among Christians in Egypt, consisting of less than a million people. Along with the Orthodox Christians in Egypt they have suffered persecution from the Islamist groups.
“There are many problems for the Christians there,” Deacon Salama said.
“It’s always been like that with the discrimination for Christians at work or wherever you go,” Yvonne added.
“They want to know your name and what religion you are. Some positions are not open to Christians. I think it’s getting worse now. Now it’s open persecution if you are a Christian. In some parts of Egypt they have killed priests. The government sometimes tries to control it but it’s out of hand.”
Despite the on-going persecution she said it is not easy for Coptic Catholics to migrate to Australia.
“It’s a bit hard for them to come here though because immigration is not that easy.”
Deacon Salama estimates that there are only about 2,000 Coptic Catholics in the whole of Australia and they depend upon priests being sent from Egypt. Currently St Mark’s community have no priest but they expect one to arrive in the coming months.
The opening of their first church in Australia will be a highly significant event and it is expected that not only the Patriarch but many bishops and priests will travel from Egypt for the occasion.
“Many, many people will come,” Deacon Salama said.
To make a donation towards the building of St Mark’s Coptic Catholic church: saintmarkcatholic.com