Egypt’s baptism agreement: Solution or reason for more debate?

A billboard with a picture of Egyptian Coptic Pope Tawadros II ( left), welcomes Pope Francis, at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo, on April 27, 2017. (AP)

During his two-day visit to Egypt, Catholic Pope Francis signed a baptism unification agreement with his Coptic Orthodox counterpart Pope Tawadros II. According to the agreement, both Catholic and Coptic Orthodox churches are to acknowledge each other’s baptisms so that people seeking to convert from one denomination to the other will not need to repeat the admission rite.

“Today we, Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros II, in order to please the heart of the Lord Jesus, as well as that of our sons and daughters in the faith, mutually declare that we, with one mind and heart, will seek sincerely not to repeat the baptism that has been administered in either of our Churches for any person who wishes to join the other,” said the statement issued by the two popes.

The agreement seemed like an adequate solution for existing tension between the two churches especially in the case of Catholics who want to join the Coptic Church and are required to go through a re-baptism, yet the heated debates that preceded the declaration among members of the Coptic community are hardly expected to subside.

According to Coptic activist Mina Thabet, the agreement is meant to solve problems that arise when people from different denominations want to get married. “It is difficult for a Catholic who wants to marry an Orthodox Copt to repeat the sacrament, and for a Catholic this means that his Christianity is not recognized by the other church, as if he is not a true Christian,” he said.

READ ALSO ANALYSIS: The religious significance of Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt

Thabet, who is also a researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and ‎Freedoms, said that the Coptic Church’s stance on Catholic baptism dates back to the Roman Empire, in reference to the AD 451 Council of Chalcedon that marked the separation of the two churches, when centuries of sectarian discrimination drove the Coptic community to be “more conservative, closed, and strict in its Orthodox values.”

According to Thabet, Pope Tawadros II apparently wanted to ease those restrictions, but was put under pressure by the Coptic community, which led to changing the wording of the agreement into “seek sincerely not to repeat baptism” so as not to make it mandatory for the Coptic Church to accept Catholics without re-baptism.

Significance 

Journalist Maged Atef argued that the significance of the agreement and the controversy stirred by it are the result of two main factors: first, it is about baptism, which is the sacrament of admission into Christianity and second, it tackles a 1,500-year conflict between the two churches. “While the Catholic Church recognized the Orthodox Church in the 1960s, late Coptic Pope Shenouda of Egypt still insisted on not recognizing Catholicism,” he wrote.

“This changed with the advent of Pope Tawadros since he adopted a more reconciliatory stance with Catholics yet was faced with opposition by hardliners who supported Shenouda.”

Atef added that it was difficult for Copts to accept after all those years that they and Catholics can stand on an equal footing. “Now the Coptic church is divided into two camps. The hardliners believe that what Tawadros did is a disaster and they are the ones who leaked information about the agreement before it was signed so they can incite the community against him. On the other hand, the reformists believe he embarked on a historic step that is in line with the teachings of Christ,” Atef explained.

However, Atef clarified that in all cases hardliners are incapable of entering into a confrontation with Tawadros since he enjoys a great deal of support inside the church and because the political climate in Egypt cannot take more instability. 

Needs approval 

Mena Assad, lecturer of theology at the Coptic Orthodox Church, said that Pope Tawadros discussed the unification of baptism with the Catholic Church at the Holy Synod in 2014 and the majority of the members rejected it. “This cannot just be reversed through a visit by the Catholic pope to Cairo. It is an issue that has to be approved by the relevant committees at the Holy Synod and cannot be dealt with unilaterally by the pope,” he said.

Assad added that the Holy Synod also issued a decree in the 1990s stating that Catholics who want to join the Coptic Orthodox Church have to be re-baptized. “The reason is simply because the bases of faith for both churches are different and baptism needs to be based on faith. Unless beliefs are unified, baptism cannot.”

Coptic activist and writer Kamal Zakher said that the agreement is more symbolic than practical.

“The agreement will not unify baptism right away. It is not as simple as that, yet it is a good step towards rapprochement between the two churches,” he said.

“True, it was a shock for Orthodox hardliners, but it opens the door for discussion on issues that were treated as givens before and for letting go of the idea that one sect would consider itself the only right party.”

It is noteworthy that the rite of baptism itself is not the same in the Catholic and Coptic churches. In the Catholic Church, holy water is sprinkled over the person’s head, while in the Coptic Orthodox Church, the person is totally immersed in holy water.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:50 - GMT 06:50
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