Shared prayer during Pope Francis s visit to Cairo in April 2017
Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark, is scheduled to visit the Vatican City in Rome from 9 to 14 May. The agenda of the 118th Coptic Orthodox Pope is very full and includes a meeting with Roman Catholic Pope Francis on 10 May.
The visit comes 10 years after Tawadros II’s first meeting with Pope Francis and 50 years after the first meeting between a Roman Catholic Pope and a Coptic Orthodox Pope and Patriarch. A decade ago the two popes agreed that 10 May should be declared Coptic-Catholic Friendship Day.
Pope Tawadros II told the media he will be accompanied by a delegation of 10 priests in Rome. The Egyptian pope will be present alongside Pope Francis for the general audience in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican, where he will give an address to the crowds.
Pope Tawadros II said the visit will commence with a meeting designed to discuss means for the two churches to draw closer together and a session between the Coptic Orthodox delegation and the Vatican.
On 13-14 May, Pope Tawadros II will visit Coptic Orthodox churches in Rome. Due to the small size of these churches, Pope Francis has allocated the Archbasilica of St John Lateran for Pope Tawadros to preside over the Coptic Orthodox liturgy.
During Pope Tawadros II’s pastoral visit to Rome in 2018, he presided over the liturgy at the St Paul the Apostle Church, the second-largest Catholic church in Italy.
During his meeting with the Egyptian media, the pope told Al-Ahram Weekly that he would share with Pope Francis in an ecumenical prayer, not a liturgical one that follows a certain structure based on the denomination of each group.
“It will be just like the prayer we shared at St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral when Pope Francis visited Cairo in April 2017,” he said. “We were then a large group of the heads of churches. We were not affiliated to the same denomination, but we were gathered in ecumenical prayer.”
Before the announcement of Tawadros II’s visit to the Vatican, rumours had spread on some social-media platforms that the Egyptian pope would take part in a Catholic prayer, with some even accusing him of diverting from the teachings of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
This is not the first time that hardliners have spread disinformation about the pope’s foreign trips. Six months after Pope Tawadros II visited the Vatican for the first time in May 2013 on a European tour that included Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, rumours spread that he had shared in a Catholic prayer with Pope Francis.
The Coptic Orthodox Church denied the rumours in an official statement.
At times of closer rapprochement between the Coptic Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, similar rumours sometimes spread. However, there were no such rumours when former Pope Shenouda III, the 117th Patriarch, visited the Vatican in 1973.
Anba Epiphanius, bishop of the Anba Makkar Monastery, said during one of his foreign visits that those behind the rumours were a group of Coptic Orthodox Christians who feared for their personal interests.
Anba Epiphanius played an important role in the rapprochement between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches until he was murdered by Isiah Al-Maqary, a monk at the Anba Makkar Monastery, who was later sentenced to death.
Waves of rumours also occurred when Pope Francis visited Cairo in April 2017, with hardliners writing on social media that the Coptic Orthodox Church had accepted Catholic baptism.
A church statement said the two churches had agreed to “seek to accept the baptism of Catholics” rather than “accepting the baptism of Catholics”.
Anba Epiphanius then delivered a speech at the Friends of Arab Heritage Conference in February 2018 acknowledging the acceptance of the baptism of Catholics based on the writings of the Early Church.
The rapprochement between the Roman Catholic and Coptic Orthodox Churches witnessed strides in which Anba Epiphanius played a leading role. Pope Tawadros II’s upcoming visit to the Vatican is considered to be a resumption of the warm and amicable relations between the two churches.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly