BUCHAREST -- The death of a 6-week-old infant after he was submerged while being baptized has sparked public outrage in Romania and led to calls for the centuries-old rite to be changed.
The drama of the tragic event -- which has been headline news in Romania for weeks -- has been quite impersonal, with few details published about the baby or his family. But it has provided a snapshot of the divisions in contemporary Romania.
The influential Romanian Orthodox Church has resisted calls to reform the ceremony and has stayed true to its roots, pitting it against those in Romania who are demanding that some church traditions be altered or modernized as other Christian denominations have done in recent decades.
On January 31, baby Iustin went into cardiac arrest shortly after he was baptized by an Orthodox priest in the northeast city of Suceava. He died in the hospital the next day.
Doctors found about a deciliter of liquid in his lungs. The result of an autopsy is expected in a couple of weeks, according to a lawyer for Iustin's parents, Ioan Bulboaca. He added that the priest, the emergency-room doctor, parents, and guests at the baptism have all been questioned by prosecutors.
The priest who performed the baptism, Alexandru Mazarache, has been named as a suspect in a probe into involuntary manslaughter for Iustin's death.
Mazarache's lawyer, Marcel Balatchi, told RFE/RL on February 11 that his client "is innocent" and said he had "performed the ritual according to church canons."
In the wake of Iustin's death, tens of thousands have signed a petition calling for three full immersions in water necessary for a baptism in the Orthodox Church to be changed.
In an unprecedented step, Romania's ombudsman met with church clerics on February 17 and recommended some health and safety measures -- including better training in baptisms for new priests and refresher courses for veterans. It wants the health of the infant to be considered and for the church to baptize babies when they are slightly older.
But the public pressure hasn't swayed the church, at least in the essential matter of baptism -- a ritual signifying admission into Christianity and considered a sacrament in most denominations. The Romanian Orthodox Church's Holy Synod, the church's decision-making body, met on February 25 and announced that the baptism ritual would not be changed and altered.
But it did say it would urge priests to be more responsible when performing the ritual.
The synod also ruled that priests will be required to meet with parents before a baptism and discuss their children's health, while theology schools will ensure "increased attention" is given to teaching future priests about the immersion practice, a church website said.
Teodosie, the archbishop of Tomis, a leader of the church's conservative wing who has been in the public eye for flouting coronavirus lockdown rules, indicated soon after the infant's death that the church wouldn't bow to public outrage.
"We won't be intimidated," he said sternly on February 2 in an interview with Antena 3. "These canons related to faith have been valid for more than 1,000 years. This is why we won't change."
Vladimir Dumitru, a biology teacher from the eastern town of Macin and author of the petition demanding changes to the baptism ritual, told RFE/RL on February 28 that the concessions made by the synod were "a small step forward, but it's not the right step."
He said he would initiate another petition and send it to parliament asking the authorities to carry out a medical assessment to determine what risks exist in Orthodox baptisms.
"When we handed the petition to the church [on February 15] there were demonstrators outside the patriarchy calling us neo-Marxists and satanists," he said of the opposition he encountered for challenging the powerful church.
Many observers were not surprised by the church's response to the call for changes that could improve safety for infants during baptism.
Victoria Clark, author of Why Angels Fall, a 2000 book on Eastern Orthodoxy, told RFE/RL on February 12 that "so much of the faith [in the Orthodox Church] is based on its unchanging, eternal nature, and that you can trace its rituals and hymns all the way back to Byzantine times."
"If you lose these unchanging rituals, you lose something integral to the faith...rather like in the same way a magician has the need to [perform a trick precisely], otherwise it is not effective," she told RFE/RL. "It is important that rituals are followed to the letter and the total immersion goes back to John the Baptist and the River Jordan; he didn't just flick a bit of water on them, he was immersing them totally."
John the Baptist's baptism of Jesus in the Jordan in the first century is the primary event the long-held tradition is based upon. Baptisms are performed in virtually every Christian denomination, though the Orthodox Church and protestant Baptists are most known for the full-immersion baptism.
Most Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and the majority of other protestant churches perform a sprinkling or pouring of water on the head of someone being baptized, posing no danger to the newly christened.
More than 85 percent of Romanians belong to the Orthodox Church, though many nominal Orthodox question the church's influential role in society. Some also balk at religion classes in schools, which they say focus on the Orthodox Church to the exclusion of other denominations and faiths. Others say the church unfairly benefits from state funding.
But Iustin's death during his baptism has led to fresh criticism about the full-immersion procedure during the ritual.
Dumitru's petition urging a "moderate and constructive" approach to baptism had been signed by more than 65,000 people by March 3. Signatories want the child's head to be symbolically sprinkled with water "rather like Catholic and Protestant christenings and not with force and even brutality (there are isolated cases, but they exist)," it says. "The death of babies caused by such practices, even if it's accidental, is a never-ending tragedy that brings sorrow instead of joy. This risk should be eliminated in the future."
Church spokesman Vasile Banescu responded on February 15 that people had a right to sign a petition but "the way a religious ritual is carried out exclusively depends on the huge individual and community responsibility of the church cleric," Agerpres reported.
"Baptism is nonnegotiable," Archbishop Teodosie said bluntly in an interview with Radio Dobrogea on February 19. "It's God's work. Are we going to correct God?"
Cristian Parvulescu, the dean of the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration, predicted before the synod meeting that the church wouldn't alter the ritual.
"The church doesn't accept Catholic practices," he told RFE/RL on February 18. "This would mean a surrender to public opinion and they are not prepared to do this."
He said the actual ritual was "an extraordinary trauma for the child...a trauma that has never been investigated and is probably the cause of many problems in our society."
"The problem is that the church has two branches -- the parish priests and the monks -- and there are tensions [between them]," he added. "The monks run the church and the parish priests come into direct contact with society and are more likely to adapt [or change]. I've seen a priest [baptize a child] by sprinkling water on its head."
He added, "The question is, when will pressure come from within the church to change things?"
Change From Within
There does appear to be some openness for modifying the ritual at the top levels of the church.
The archbishop of Arges, Calinic, a member of the Holy Synod, said on February 12 that he supported a gentler form of baptism "to avoid unwanted accidents." He is the first senior cleric to offer a less rigid interpretation of the ceremony.
An archbishop since 2009, Calinic in January baptized the daughter of Nicolas of Romania, the grandson of the late King Michael, and said he dipped her feet in water and sprinkled water on her forehead, a ceremony similar to those performed in non-Orthodox Christian churches.
But while his opinion was welcomed by some, it was in the minority during the Holy Synod.
Dan Ciachir, a commentator on Orthodox affairs and a church defender, explained that baptism was one of seven sacraments and of fundamental importance in Christian life.
"The idea is for the person [be baptized before dying]," he said. "There have been millions of Orthodox baptisms like this and sometimes there are [tragic] incidents, but you can't change the ritual."
He emphasized the importance put upon a baby being baptized before dying.
"In the past, when there weren't cars...and a newborn [was ill and appeared as if] he was about to die, a lay person could take water and pour it on him. If the child was in the desert, it could be baptized with sand," he told RFE/RL on February 10.
"There are nuances [to the ritual], of course," he added. "When an infant is ill, you don't plunge him [into the baptismal font]."
He said priests were taught how to hold the baby in theological training, using dolls instead of actual infants.
Ciachir said there was a proper way to perform an Orthodox christening and Calinic's baptism of King Michael's great-granddaughter was not only wrong but "he should have brought [his concerns] up in the synod, not in...the press."
However, he added "more precautions, more attention" could be taken during baptisms in the future.
For Iustin's family, his death goes beyond the immediate personal tragedy.
The infant's father, Alexandru Ungureanu, told RFE/RL on February 11 that the baptism ritual "should have been changed long ago," saying there had been a similar case in the northeastern city of Iasi in 2017 that didn't receive much media attention.
Bulboaca, the parents' lawyer, claimed the way the baptism was done "goes against deontological norms."
"The child was crying; he was put in the font with his face up, anyone would swallow water. This is a secondary (delayed) drowning," he told RFE/RL on February 16. "When he came out, he wasn't crying. It was a sound, like a cry for help, that's all he could do.... [And his] death came later."
While the Orthodox baptism ritual remains unchanged for now, many believe the dispute with the church is not over.
"A Pandora's box has been opened," Dumitru said on February 28. "When there is another [tragic case resulting in a death], as I'm convinced there sadly will be, there will be a really, really ugly reaction from society."