(ACN) - A leading Coptic Catholic bishop has expressed hopes that a historic meeting between two popes may lead to the Coptic Orthodox Church recognising Catholic baptism.
Bishop Kyrillos William of Assiut described the meeting between Catholic Pope Francis and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II earlier this month as a “watershed” in ecumenical relations – and expressed optimism that the two Churches would grow closer.
One key contention between the churches is that the Coptic Orthodox Church does not recognise Catholic baptism.
Catholics converting to marry Coptic Orthodox Christians have to be rebaptised. Such conversions are not unusual, as anyone marrying outside the Coptic Orthodox Church, or one of its sister Oriental Orthodox Churches, is barred from the sacraments.
Rumours in February 2010 that Pope Shenouda III would allow marriage between Catholics and Orthodox, because of the two Churches’ theological and doctrinal closeness, were quickly quashed by Coptic Orthodox officials.
During an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop William was asked if he expected movement on the issue of Catholic baptism being recognised. He replied: “Yes, Tawadros has said this himself”.
Describing the current difficulties, the bishop added: “Pope Shenouda demanded rebaptism because he was of the opinion that unity in faith was a condition for recognising Catholic baptism.
“He quoted the Epistle to the Ephesians, where there is talk of one Lord, one faith and one baptism.”
But, Bishop William said that any change in the position on baptism will be far from straightforward.
“The difficulty will be that there are still many of Shenouda’s adherents in the Coptic synod.
“But there are also bishops who have gone along with Shenouda’s line on rebaptism for reasons of obedience and not conviction.
“I cannot therefore risk a prediction that the line will change – but my impression is that [Pope Francis’s] cordial nature and the openness of Tawadros’s curia representatives and his companions, including also disciples of Shenouda, have made a positive impact.”
He added that improving relations between the two Churches were being driven by the common problems Catholic and Orthodox Christians were experiencing in Egypt.
“When the revolution broke out two years ago spontaneous consultations arose between us Catholics and the Orthodox Church as well as Protestants. We wanted to speak with one voice.”
And according to Bishop William, the new Coptic Orthodox Pope’s actions reveal a commitment to ecumenism.
He said: “Pope Tawadros has shown from the very beginning that he wishes to come closer to the other Churches.
“Just after the election of Pope Francis he pushed for a meeting on 10th May – that is the 40th anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Pope Shenouda III.
“Now it isn’t easy to obtain an audience in the Vatican at short notice. But great efforts were made to meet Tawadros’ wishes.
“I think that this really is a watershed. Tawadros is quite different from his predecessor Shenouda as far as the ecumenical movement is concerned.”