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Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, Egypt, precedes Pope Francis as they leave the Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican May 11, 2023.

(OSV News) -- Catholic clergy from Egypt have warned that ties with Orthodox and Islamic leaders are being derailed by a Vatican decision to allow the blessing of same-sex couples, after the country’s influential Coptic Orthodox Church suspended dialogue over the issue.

“The pope and Vatican misjudged the timing of their declaration last December -- it was widely seen as unprepared and awkwardly managed, just to satisfy churches in the West,” said Father Rafic Greiche, editor of Egypt’s Catholic Hamil al-Risalah weekly and former spokesman of the Catholic Coptic Church.

“While there was no consideration of the Islamic world, the document was a propaganda gift to Orthodox churches, whose bishops and priests are now insisting only Orthodox traditions are truly righteous,” he said.

The Cairo-based priest was reacting to a March 7 decision by the governing Holy Synod of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, the Middle East’s largest Christian denomination, to halt theological dialogue with Catholics over the Vatican’s Dec. 18 declaration, “Fiducia Supplicans.”

In an OSV News interview, he said the synod’s move to suspend rather than break off dialogue offered hope ties could eventually be resumed.

However, he added that his own Catholic Church also had notified Pope Francis of its refusal to accept same-sex blessings, and said other historic churches in the Middle East and Africa had also rejected the declaration in the first such act of open defiance.

Meanwhile, another prominent Catholic priest said “Fiducia Supplicans” had come at a “hard time” for interchurch and interfaith relations, and was viewed by Eastern Christians as “severely harmful to the faith.”

“The Orthodox churches have very clear rules, reflecting their cultural and social backgrounds,” said Father Romany Shenouda, a priest and diocesan youth chaplain from Tahta in upper Egypt. “Although attempts are being made to justify the Vatican declaration, claiming the pope’s aims were misunderstood, other churches now also look certain to suspend ties.”

In its March 7 statement, the 133-member Coptic Orthodox Synod, chaired by Pope Tawadros II at Wadi Natrun, said it was suspending dialogue with Catholics “after consulting with sister-churches from the Orthodox family.”

“The Coptic Orthodox Church affirms its firm position of rejecting all forms of homosexual relationships, because they violate the Holy Bible and the law by which God created man male and female, and it considers that any blessing, whatever its type, for such relationships is a blessing for sin, and this is unacceptable,” added the synod, whose church dates from a first-century mission by St. Mark and makes up a 10th of Egypt’s population of 114 million.

The synod decided to “re-evaluate the results that the dialogue has achieved since its beginning 20 years ago, and establish new standards and mechanisms for the dialogue to proceed.”

The Vatican’s dicasteries for the Eastern Churches and for Promoting Christian Unity have not commented on the Coptic Orthodox Synod’s move.

However, Father Greiche said the Coptic Orthodox Church, which has over 100 parishes across the United States, had a “different understanding of blessings,” and would not revoke its decision.

“As priests, we are obliged to bless anyone who asks for this -- but no one here can really understand what the pope has done,” said the priest, who advises Egypt’s Council of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops.

“Being in an Islamic environment, we also have to be very cautious, since homosexual acts are forbidden here and this is a taboo subject,” he said.

The papal declaration “Fiducia Supplicans” (”Supplicating Trust”) on “the pastoral meaning of blessings” was published by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and signed by its Argentine prefect, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández. The declaration said Catholic priests should be permitted to give blessings “outside of a liturgical framework” to same-sex couples, without “officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage.”

In a Jan. 26 dicastery address, the pope said “pastoral and spontaneous blessings” did not “require moral perfection,” but were intended to express “the closeness of the Lord and the church to all those who, finding themselves in different situations, ask for help in carrying forward -- sometimes in starting -- a path of faith.”

However, blessings have been rejected by numerous Catholic bishops’ conferences and individual dioceses worldwide.

In a Feb. 20 statement, Russia’s predominant Orthodox Church said it analyzed the document and concluded it “reflected a sharp departure from Christian moral teaching.”

Meanwhile, Greece’s Orthodox Church “categorically rejected” a Feb. 15 parliamentary vote to allow same-sex weddings as “a deviation from Christian marriage” and also is studying the Vatican declaration.

In his OSV News interview, Father Shenouda said Catholic-Coptic Orthodox ties had improved significantly under Pope Tawadros, who took office in 2012 as the Egyptian church’s 118th patriarch, but added that pressure had been exerted for a suspension of dialogue by older Coptic bishops dating from the 40-year leadership of Pope Shenouda (1923-2012).

Meanwhile, Father Greiche said Catholic and Orthodox clergy had exchanged prayer invitations for Egypt’s week of prayer for unity, beginning March 16, adding that he hoped the breakdown would be confined to top-level Vatican-Coptic Orthodox relations.

“Yet explanations which came later for this declaration have merely compounded the harm already done,” said the priest, whose 272,000-member Catholic Coptic Church has 14 dioceses in Egypt, including pastoral services for Latin, Melkite, Armenian, Chaldean, Maronite and Syrian Catholics.

“I think the pope and Vatican should now have the courage to withdraw it,” he said.

The Catholic and Coptic Orthodox churches set up an international joint commission in 1973 following a historic Rome meeting between Pope Paul VI and Shenouda III, which was widely seen as heralding similar agreements with other Eastern Orthodox churches.

Pope Francis, who established an annual Day of Catholic-Coptic Friendship after his first meeting with Pope Tawadros in May 2013, had an Arabic-speaking Egyptian Catholic personal secretary, Msgr. Yoannis Lahze Gaid, until August 2020.

In a Jan. 26 address to the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the pontiff paid tribute to the “incredible richness” of dialogue between the “Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Malankara, Ethiopian, Eritrean and Latin church traditions.”

However, in a March 8 video, the Coptic spokesman, Father Moussa Ibrahim, said the Catholic Church’s latest “change of position on the issue of homosexuality” had required the suspension of links.

An accompanying synod statement said those “suffering from homosexual tendencies” should remember homosexual practices were condemned by “the Bible in both testaments,” and be “warned and cut off from communion until they repent.”

A Coptic Orthodox Synod member, Archbishop Anba Angelaos of London, told OSV News church leaders had "nothing further to add" to the March 7 statement.

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