Pope Francis on Friday evening will be meeting with Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, to which 90 percent of Egypt’s around 10 million Christians belong.
The visit reciprocates the journey Tawadros took to Rome in 2013, shortly after the election of Francis, in a meeting which marked the 40th anniversary of the signing of a common Christological declaration by Paul VI and Shenouda III.
Despite its name, the Coptic Orthodox Church does not belong to the Eastern Orthodox communion, whose spiritual head is the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I of Constantinople.
It is a member of the Oriental Orthodox family, which broke with what are now the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches as early as the fifth century, when they rejected the definitions of the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
This communion is comprised of six independent bodies:
- The Coptic Orthodox Church
- The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
- The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church
- The Syriac Orthodox Church
- The Armenian Apostolic Church
- The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church
Together, they represent some 84 million faithful and are among the oldest Christian bodies in the world. (Another ancient Church is the Assyrian Church of the East, which was separated even earlier, after the Council of Ephesus in 431).
The Vatican has been trying to heal this ancient wound for decades, through a dialogue which is sometimes easier and sometimes harder than the dialogue with the larger Orthodox communion.
Easier, because although the split is longer lasting, many of the historical tensions which existed between Catholics and Orthodox just aren’t present in the Catholic-Oriental Orthodox relationship. Also, since so many of the Oriental Orthodox have existed in somewhat inhospitable environments – either due to Muslim or communist rule – being friends with the Vatican can help in the international arena.
It is harder for two main reasons: The first is that the split was over more fundamental issues – the nature of Jesus Christ – than the 1054 split with the Eastern Orthodox, although several Christological declarations have been signed with the various Oriental Orthodox Churches; the second is that the Oriental Orthodox communion is not as hierarchically unified as the Catholic or even the Eastern Orthodox Church, meaning it is important to have good personal relations with each individual Church.
Last June, Francis visited His Holiness Karekin II, the Catholicos of All Armenians, and even stayed in his residence.
“We have met, we have embraced as brothers, we have prayed together and shared the gifts, hopes and concerns of the Church of Christ,” the pope said. “We have felt as one her beating heart, and we believe and experience that the Church is one.”
The experience, Francis said, had clearly demonstrated mutual affection, as well as “our tangible longing for full communion.”
In an interview with Light of Truth, a publication of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam, Kerala, Father K.M. George, a priest of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in India and principal of the Orthodox Theological Seminary in Kerala, said Francis is trying to move the ecumenical dialogue between the two communions forward by seeking a new paradigm.
“I personally believe that Pope Francis has a unique vision, although some people would say that he is too idealistic,” George said. “He has a new vision of Christianity. I think he is going back to the original gospel message. So we need to have a new paradigm of Christianity to live in the present world.”
One aspect which Francis focuses on is “the ecumenism of blood,” noting that those who kill Christians do not care to which Church or denomination they belong.
“The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out be heard. It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants,” Francis said when 21 Copts were murdered by ISIS in Libya in 2015. “The martyrs belong to all Christians.”
Monsignor Gabriel Quicke, who is in charge of dialogue with the Oriental Orthodox Churches for the Vatican, told Vatican Radio this was greatly appreciated by the Coptic Church.
“I believe that the Holy Father since he promised to pray for those who died, and also for the families, it is in fact a spiritual recognition of this closeness,” Quicke said. “We are deeply united with one another.”
Quicke said the pope’s trip to Egypt “will be very significant to the continuation of the ecumencial path towards full and visible unity, that will be a very important dimension.”
“We are in varied relations, thank God,” Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Britain told Crux.
“There is between the two heads of the Churches, there is a very good relationship. I was blessed enough to have been with Pope Tawadros when he went to the Vatican in 2013 to visit Pope Francis, and that was on the fortieth anniversary of the signing of an agreement on Christology between our Churches,” he said.
“At the international level, there is an international dialogue between the Vatican and the Oriental Orthodox family of Churches. Here in Britain, I’m co-founder and co-chair of a regional forum between the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and the Oriental Churches,” – Angaelos continued – “So at every level, I think we are working together theologically, ecumenically; but also with our daily witness, and our daily expression and response to the things that might be happening in the community.”