A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Coptic Clash With the State Over Divorce

Although this blog has, given some of my own personal interests and past research, paid pretty close attention to Coptic issues in Egypt, one the biggest rifts between church and state since Anwar Sadat's day has been playing out without any comment from me, since it more or less coincided with my broken hip and subsequent surgery.

Like most Middle Eastern countries, Egypt's laws of personal status follow the religious law of the individual community. Egypt is actually better than many of its neighbors in that both civil marriage and divorce do exist (they do not, for example, in Israel), but they may not be accepted by one's religious community when it comes to the right to remarry.

Like most Eastern Churches, the Copts are rather restrictive on grounds for divorce. Divorce (with right to remarry) is only granted if one spouse is guilty of adultery or bigamy; the innocent spouse may be allowed to remarry, but only with approval of the bishops. But in recent years there has been pressure from the laity for change, since Copts granted a civil divorce cannot remarry in the eyes of the church, and are often confronted with the option of converting to Islam if they wish to remarry.

On May 29, Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court ruled in a case that was already on appeal, in which two Coptic men who had been granted civil divorces sued for the right to remarry in the Church. A lower court had ruled against the Church. The Court this time ruled that since the Egyptian Constitution granted citizens the right to remarriage and a family, the Church must comply. So a classic Church-state conflict was inevitable.

The Church and its bishops opposed the ruling and Pope Shenouda carefully rejected it, noting that the Church respects the Constitution and laws of Egypt but that marriage is a sacrament instituted by the gospels and the Church could not compromise.

An emergency meeting of the Holy Synod (which normally meets only once a year) was called;

Pope Shenouda was soon, reportedly, promised a Presidential decree to rectify the situation. Then it was announced that a draft law would be prepared to fix the issue within 30 days, though the commission to do so is already under fire for not inviting the Catholics and Anglicans.

The government is very sensitive about international criticism of the rights of Christians in Egypt; it got lots of negative press during the Nag Hammadi killings in January. So the court has created an issue the government wishes very much would go away, as the promises first of a Presidential decree and then of a draft law demonstrate.

More as appropriate as this makes its way through legislation.

No comments: