CAIRO — Harmony prevailed between Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church and Coptic Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria during Francis' visit to Egypt April 28-29, but their like-mindedness on baptism has ignited a debate between the Egyptian Orthodox Church and its adherents.
Denominational differences over baptism date back centuries. One point of contention concerns whether Christians who switch churches are required to be rebaptized according to their new denomination or whether a baptism is irrevocable. Egyptian media reported that during a papal meeting at St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo's Abbasiya district, Francis and Tawadros signed a “document ending the dispute over the sacrament of baptism or rebaptism.” During a general audience back at the Vatican on May 3, Francis announced that he and Tawadros had signed a “common declaration to journey together, and not to duplicate baptisms already received in the respective Churches.”
Their agreement angered many Egyptian Orthodox Christians, some of whom had earlier expressed reservations about the issue based on information leaked before Francis arrived in Cairo. According to the leaks, the document to be signed represented a final agreement on baptismal unity, which many Orthodox Christians view as contrary to their Orthodox faith.
In an attempt to head off trouble, the Orthodox Church Holy Synod Secretariat issued a statement 24 hours before Francis' arrival explaining that the document in question was a common declaration, not a final agreement, and would read as follows:
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. This we confess in obedience to the Holy Scriptures and the faith of the three Ecumenical Councils assembled in Nicaea, Constantinople and Ephesus.
We ask God our Father to guide us, in the times and by the means that the Holy Spirit will choose, to full unity in the mystical Body of Christ.
A source from the Orthodox Church told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The document and Pope Francis' remarks do not affirm the signing of an agreement requiring that the sacrament of Baptism not be duplicated. Rather, they both spoke of a common declaration spiritually committing both parties to seek to achieve that in the hope of the reunification of the churches in the future.”
Nevertheless, Mina Asaad Kamel, a professor of Christian apologetics at the Alexandria School of Theology, told Al-Monitor, “Seeking to not repeat baptism in preparation for baptismal unity should not happen at present. This is because acknowledging the Catholic sacrament of baptism as valid is accepting the Catholic doctrine, while many doctrinal differences need to be resolved beforehand through a dialogue between the two churches, before examining the issue related to the sacrament of baptism.”
In an April 30 Facebook post, Kamel asserted that the signed document in its entirety, not just a part of it, should be publicly disclosed so Orthodox followers could be informed. He also started an Arabic hashtag that translates to #We_want_the_original_document.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Arabi21 website, which opposes President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, al-Azhar and the Orthodox Church, published a May 1 article by the journalist Salim Azzouz, who wrote, “My guess is that the signing of the declaration does not imply sharing the same faith. Rather, it is a political move made by Pope Tawadros II as a part of Sisi’s campaign to woo Pope Francis. Tawadros II does not have a problem abandoning his church’s beliefs in order to please the ruler, because Sisi needs the Vatican's pope.”
Kamal Zakher, the coordinator of the Secular Coptic Current, an activist group, told Al-Monitor, “The political and religious goals behind Pope Francis' visit should not be confused. I do not think that the state pressured the Orthodox Church to sign a document on baptism. This is because Pope Francis came to Egypt at the invitation of al-Azhar and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, not the Orthodox Church or Pope Tawadros II, and Pope Francis builds upon [this] when signing any documents. The visit’s political objective is to declare that all religious leaders have rallied behind Egypt in countering terrorism. This is the case in particular because the war on terrorism has sought to stem the support of Christians in Egypt and all over the world for the state, after churches and Christians were recently heavily targeted by terrorist attacks.”
Zakher also stated, “The churches agreeing to try to avoid repeat baptisms is not a complete or finalized achievement that will bring the political regime closer to Pope Francis or pressure the Egyptian church. This is because seeking to do something does not necessarily mean that the efforts are going to bear fruit anytime soon. Such endeavors need years, and negative reactions to the churches’ declaration are something normal, especially because all churches have taught their followers for centuries that they are right and all other denominations are wrong.”
The situation is unlikely to have been one of the regime pressuring the Orthodox Church to sign a mere common declaration. A final agreement, however, would have been a different matter, as it, with an assist from Egypt, would have enshrined Francis as the cleric who ended the centuries-long dispute. Regardless, in light of Egyptian Orthodox Christians' opposition, endeavors to reach baptismal unity will not bear fruit anytime soon.