Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt have taken a significant ecumenical step by signing a common declaration that Roman Catholics and Copts may recognize each other's baptisms.
The agreement is, in the eyes of the World Council of Churches, a "sign of hope".
"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," they said on 28 April in Cairo.
The agreement also commits the churches to work towards a shared formulation of the Lord's Prayer and a common date for the celebration of Easter.
POPE FRANCIS' VISIT TO EGYPT
The joint declaration was signed during Pope Francis's visit to the Orthodox Saint Mark's Coptic Cathedral in Cairo as part of a two-day visit he was making to Egypt.
The visit was to show solidarity with the people of Egypt, particularly to the Christian community; to strengthen ties with Coptic Christians; and to address a Muslim-Christian International Peace Conference hosted by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.
The signing was followed by a common ecumenical prayer in St Peter's and St Paul's church, site of a tragic bombing on 11 December 2016.
The Coptic Orthodox Church is a member of the WCC. The Catholic Church is not a WCC member, but it serves on its important Faith and Order Commission and cooperates with the churches' council on many other issues.
WCC general secretary Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, who was in Cairo with a delegation to meet with member churches and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, also participated in the ecumenical prayer.
Tveit said, "The agreement is a sign of hope. We are as churches called to be one so that the world may believe. The text shows the strong intention to give a common witness to the shared Christian faith."
The general secretary commented, "This is a sign of what it means to be together on a pilgrimage of justice and peace. The contextual and historical dimension of the agreement is significant:
"The challenging times require that we are committed to pray together, to pray for and with one another, to witness together, and to show this in word and action. Our call to be one is also a call to work for peace and the unity of humankind."
Rev. Odair Pedroso Mateus, director of the WCC Faith and Order Commission, said, "In a time of growing cultural and religious fragmentation and sectarianism, Catholics and Copts are affirming what we believe to be universally human and universally Christian.
"They help us come closer to full catholicity, which is precisely the antidote to contemporary fragmentation and sectarianism."
Tveit noted, "This agreement between the Coptic Church and the Roman Catholic Church has significant historical dimensions, pointing back to the unity of the church that existed in the first centuries, but was broken later.
"The agreement says: 'Our deep bond of friendship and fraternity has its origin in the full communion that existed between our churches in the first centuries.'
"It was expressed in many different ways through the early ecumenical councils, dating back to the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the contribution of the courageous Church Father Saint Athanasius, who earned the title 'Protector of the Faith'."
In recent times the mutual recognition of baptism between different churches has become more prevalent and it has been explicitly encouraged by the WCC Commission on Faith and Order.
Tveit added: "Still, obstacles remain for the full unity between Roman Catholics and the Coptic Church."
The agreement concludes: "We are aware that we still have far to go on this pilgrimage ... as we journey towards the blessed day when we will at last gather at the same Eucharistic table."
Tveit observed: "As they agree that obstacles for full communion and unity remain, what is common in faith and life has been affirmed as shared positions and commitments; something has to be further explored through the ongoing theological dialogue."