Tens of thousands of Romanians are demanding the country’s Orthodox Church bans the tradition of putting babies’ heads underwater during baptism after an infant drowned while being christened.
An online petition has now gathered over 63,000 names following the tragedy that took place on February 1 in the northern town of Suceava.
According to reports, the priest completely immersed the six-week-old boy, who was also born prematurely, during the service, but halted when the baby stopped crying and started to turn blue around the lips. Despite being rushed to hospital, the child died the next day while in intensive care.
Police have launched a criminal investigation.
The child’s death has triggered an outbreak of anger in Romania against the Church, and prompted calls for it to scrap its ancient tradition of dunking babies three times during the baptism service.
Vladimir Dumitru, a teacher and the organiser of the petition, has claimed the tradition often involves brutality and that it needs to be scrapped.
“We do not demand the end of the practice of baptism but its modification so babies are not exposed to these unnecessary and absurd risks,” Mr Dumitru wrote on the petition page.
He added that immersion should be replaced with a “symbolic sprinkling of water on the baby’s head”.
Maria Stamatin, a doctor from the intensive care unit at the maternity hospital in the town of Iasi, in north-eastern Romania, warned that even a small amount of water getting into the lungs of a young baby can be very dangerous.
“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,” Dr Stamatin told Libertatea, a Romanian newspaper.
In the wake of the tragedy Vasile Banescu, a spokesperson for the Romanian Orthodox Church, called for prosecutors to speed up the investigation into the incident. He also encouraged churches to change their practices, recommending they sprinkle holy water over babies instead of doing total immersion.
Priests contacted by Libertatea told the newspaper that while many of them preferred to sprinkle water on the head they felt under pressure from the Church’s hierarchy to conform to tradition and immerse the baby completely three times.
Although still widespread across the Orthodox world, dunking popularity is on the wane, with more and more parents opting for the safer and less distressing practice of immersing only the baby’s body and sprinkling water over its head.
Concerns have been raised about the practice of dunking babies in other countries with Orthodox populations such as Cyprus and Russia after videos surfaced of children being fully and violently immersed in water despite screaming with distress.
Traditionalists argue that despite the dangers of dunking, most children escape unharmed from the practice.
Archbishop Teodosie Petrescu, an influential cleric from the conservative wing of the Romanian Orthodox Church, has rejected calls for changes to the baptism tradition.
“There’s no way for the ritual to change,” said Archbishop Petrescu. “These canons of faith will be available for another thousand years. That is why we will not change. We’re not intimidated.”
The archbishop also told the television broadcaster Antena3 that he prefers to baptise babies in cold water because it apparently “sharpens” their spirituality and is good for their health.