Rigid Coptic Divorce Law Sparks Brawl, Protests

Monday, July 25, 2011

Coptic Christians in Egypt have almost no divorce rights, even in cases of domestic violence. In keeping with the country's revolutionary mood, a women's advocacy group aims to change that.

Some of Egypt's Copts are calling for a separation between church and state for marriage and divorce.CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)--Despite the stigma attached to divorce, ending a marriage is still relatively easy for Muslim women in Egypt. All they have to do is file paperwork with a family court and the deed is done, as long as they're not seeking alimony or damages from their husbands.

For the country's millions of Orthodox Christians, or Copts, it's been nearly impossible since Pope Shenouda III, the head of one of the most conservative churches in Christianity, forbade divorce except in the case of conversion or adultery three years ago.

That overturned a 1930s law that allowed Copts to obtain a divorce or an annulment for several reasons, such as impotence, mental disabilities and cruelty.

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In Egypt, religious institutions have sole authority to sanctify and dissolve Coptic marriages. Human rights advocates claim this practice is detrimental to the mental health of the couple as well as their children.

"It's a violation of personal rights," says Abdel Tawab, deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "It adds psychological pressure . . . which could lead the destruction of the fundamental essence of the family itself. So of course it has a negative effect on the person."

On the rare occasions the Coptic Church does allow divorce, couples often must first endure a trial -- that includes witnesses and sworn testimony -- presided over by church officials.

A high-profile outbreak of violence in May underscored the explosive issue of divorce among Copts. The case involved a formerly Coptic woman who identified herself to a local TV station as Abeer Talaat, an Assiut resident who said she became Muslim to escape her abusive husband. She converted in September 2010 and then filed for divorce.

Months later, after Talaat had agreed to marry another man, someone reported her to church authorities. Talaat said that members of the church then forced her into seclusion and encouraged her to embrace Christianity and go back to her husband.

A group of Muslims heard of her captivity, according to local media, and clashed with several Copts in Imbaba, where Talaat was being held. At least five died in the fighting.

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