Roman Catholic Pope Francis and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros signed on Friday a mutual declaration that each of their respective churches will seek to acknowledge baptisms performed in the other church.
The declaration was signed shortly after Pope Francis arrived in Cairo for a two-day visit, the first trip by a Roman Catholic Pope to the country since Pope John Paul II's visit in 2000.
The declaration between Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros states that their respective churches "will sincerely seek not to repeat baptisms administered in either of our churches for any person who wishes to join the other."
A statement by the official Vatican Radio broadcast following the signing said that the declaration finally resolves an issue that has been a consistent source of tension between Copts and Catholics; which is the insistence on a second baptism for Christians who convert from Catholic Church to the Orthodox Church.
Before Pope Francis's visit to Egypt on Friday, controversy erupted among members of the Coptic Orthodox Church – who make up the majority of Egypt's 10 percent Christian population – over an alleged version of the agreement that circulated among the community that unambiguously stated that each church would accept members from the other without a re-baptism.
Pope Tawadros and the Church Holy Council announced in statement shared via Bishop Rafael that despite rumours and “false statements,” the final declaration would include the words "sincerely seek," indicating it would not mandate a blanket acceptance of new members without re-baptism.
Why is it significant?
Bishop Antonios Aziz, the Emeritus of the Giza Coptic Catholic Church, told Ahram Online that the main issue when it comes to converting is marriage, "as Orthodox priests cannot marry a couple unless they are of the same religion, sect and denomination."
Aziz says that it is generally required for Christians that a couple not of the same sect follow the sacraments of only one of their respective sects for their marriage to be recognised.
Rights activist Mina Thabet, a senior researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, told Ahram Online that "this has affected inter-marriage between the two churches, as 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 recognised by the other church, as if he is not a true Christian."
Thabet says that he understands why Orthodox Copts oppose recognizing Catholic baptisms.
"It is a result of centuries of sectarian discrimination, from the times of the Roman Empire till today, which has pushed the Coptic community towards being more conservative, closed, and strict in its Orthodox values."
The churches' different positions
The seemingly contradictory statements by the two churches around the declaration possibly reveal differing stances on the issue of re-baptism.
Thabet says that "despite the contradictions, it is clear there was the intention by Pope Tawadros to recognise Catholic baptisms, but this changed because of the pressure exerted by the conservative current in the Coptic Orthodox community."
Thabet added, however, that the statement "sincerely seek not to repeat baptisms" still represents a new and positive step towards unifying the Christian faith and achieving convergence between the two churches, and this is why it has caused this huge controversy.
Bishop Aziz says that "it is clear that there is powerful opposition to seeking unification and acceptance, so I believe that the phrasing of the declaration changed many times, as the word 'sincerely seek' was not [initially] there."
"We all seek unification, but it requires real steps to achieve," added Aziz.
"Current statements lead us to expect various responses from Orthodox churches: some priests will not repeat baptism, some will, as is already happening."
According to Aziz, there are between 250,000 and 300,000 Egyptian Catholics.
There are some theological differences between the Catholic and Orthodox churches dating back to the Ecumenical Councils.
The baptism sacrament, one of the seven sacraments of Christianity, differs between the two churches.
The Catholic Church baptises by pouring holy water on the head of the individual being baptised, while the Orthodox baptism involves complete submersion in holy water.
The Coptic Orthodox Church requires new members joining from the Catholic Church to be re-baptised. However, the Catholic Church does not have the same requirement.
In the 1980s, then-Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda insisted on re-baptism for anyone looking to join or marry into the Coptic Orthodox Church, according to Thabet.
"The sensitivity between the two churches is caused by the fact that Catholics entered Egypt with the French and British occupation, so preserving the Orthodox principals became not only a theological issue, but also one of nationalism," Thabet explained.