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.

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Hopeful Era for Freedom

Amid a more hopeful era for freedom and civil rights here since the Jan. 25 revolution, a growing number of Copts and women's advocates are looking to prevent such clashes by allowing Copts the option of civil unions with more inclusive guidelines for divorce.

The Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance Foundation, a group based in Cairo that is leading the cause, protested outside Egypt's justice ministry in early July with a small group of Copts to press the government to change the personal status law of Christians and put matters of matrimony under government jurisdiction.

To make divorce for Coptic women easier, the legal assistance center's staff has drafted a law it says will restore divorce rights that Copts lost under the current pope and give couples more freedom in choosing whether divorce is right for them. This tests the choppy legal waters in Egypt on how far Christian religious authority will bow to state courts. (The proposal only covers a marriage between a Muslim man and a Christian woman because Christian men are not allowed to marry Muslim women in Egypt.)

"When we talk about family for Muslims, it is already civil law," says Azza Suleiman, director of the legal assistance center.

Lobbying for civil unions has failed in the past under the government of the now-deposed Hosni Mubarak, who shrank from confronting religious authorities.

The current timing may not be any better as Egypt's interim leadership is mired in corruption cases, preparing for elections set for the fall and trying to calm pressure from hundreds of protesters camping out in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the center of revolutionary demonstrations.

A Recent Precedent

A recent precedent of Egyptian courts confronting Christian leaders in cases of remarriage indicates the law is far from clear. The church forbids remarriage within the faith for some divorcees, but last year the Egyptian Supreme Administrative Court fined Pope Shenouda $3,272 for refusing to issue another marriage license to a divorced man.

The case didn't set a clear trend of state winning over church, though. A similar case of a man seeking a license to remarry was thrown out by the Supreme Constitutional Court, which ruled marriage is under the jurisdiction of religious entities and not the state.

In private, some Copts say priests exercise discretion over divorce, with some bending the pope's law for an issue such as abuse and others not.

Michael Malek, a 28-year-old single Copt, was one of the few members of the faith willing to talk about the issue. He doesn't know any couples who have sought divorce.

Some couples admit that they are unhappy and should have given their relationships more thought before marrying, but he says many don't consider divorce or changing religions. Instead, they let faith be their guide in what they deem a purely spiritual matter.

Malek says the topic of divorce is divisive for the faithful but that it's unlikely Pope Shenouda will ever accept civil marriages.

"The Pope has addressed this issue many, many times in his meetings. He frequently gets this question: 'Will you allow divorce in the Orthodox faith?' He says: 'It's in the Bible and there is no divorce. If you can't live with it, you can go to another church that allows it. But don't ask to remain [a Copt] and get a divorce.'"

Jessica Gray is a Canadian journalist reporting on the Middle East from Cairo.


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For more information:

CEWLA Foundation Egypt:

"Egyptian women's legal center demands personal status law for Copts," Al-Masry Al-Youm:

"Thugs behind Imbaba church fire, says fact-finding committee," Jerusalem & Religions:

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