By Marcel Gascón Barberá
Over 60,000 Romanians have signed an online petition calling on the country’s Orthodox church to scrap the tradition of submerging babies in water in the rite of baptism following the death of a prematurely born baby on February 1 who drowned during his christening.
The petition, started by Vladimir Dumitru, urges the Church to change the ritual from immersion in water to a “symbolic wetting of the head” of the baby. The traditional rite consists of submerging the whole body three times in the baptismal font.
The initiator of the petition argues that immersion often involves “tweaks and even brutality … as can be seen in filmed evidence from over the years”. Scrapping this tradition, Dumitru says in the petition, would “prevent these useless and absurd risks”.
The death of the prematurely born baby during his baptism in the northern county of Suceava has ignited a national debate.
Speaking to the Bucharest daily Libertatea, Dr Maria Stamatin, from the intensive care unit at the maternity hospital in Iasi, in northeastern Romania, warned of “the risk that babies aspirate water into their lungs” during immersion. “Especially when the children are newborn, a minor amount of water can provoke a cardiorespiratory arrest and, if there is not a rapid intervention, even the death of the baby.”
The ancient ritual has its defenders, however. Archbishop Teodosie of Tomis, in Constanta, on the Black Sea, said he opposed any change. “We won’t let ourselves be intimidated,” said the archbishop, a conservative maverick who repeatedly defied government restrictions during the pandemic and is sceptical about COVID-19 vaccination.
The official position of the Orthodox Church is more nuanced. Church spokesman Vasile Banescu recalled that the Church permits baptisms without full immersion. He also said the period of 40 days within which a baby should be baptised, according to tradition, can be extended when the infant’s health makes that advisable.
The Church official also said that “a special technique” may be used by the priest, consisting of him “covering the nose, mouth and ears of the baby with his hand” for the “fraction of a second” in which the baby is under water during the christening. “It is possible that this was not observed, but I cannot pronounce myself,” the spokesman said.
Banescu said that the priest who performed the fatal baptism has suspended himself from duties and is awaiting the conclusion of an official investigation into the events. Prosecutors have said he might face charges. The Church has not said if it is considering scrapping immersion from the ritual.