Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 June 2010
Issue No. 1001
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Church and state

The Supreme Administrative Court has ruled that the Orthodox Church must allow remarriages, reports Reem Leila

On 29 May, the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) ruled in favour of Christians's right to remarry, directly contradicting the position of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The court ruling states that Egyptian Copts have a constitutional right to remarry.

"The right of every Egyptian to form a family is enshrined in the Egyptian constitution," said Judge Mohamed El-Husseini. "The appeal made by Pope Shenouda III to prevent Copts from remarrying is therefore rejected."

The ruling came after two Egyptian Copts, Hani Wasfi and Magdi William, began a case contesting the Pope's refusal to issue marriage permits that would allow them to remarry after their first marriages ended in divorce. Pope Shenouda III then appealed to the SAC, in an attempt to gain legal backing for the church's position, which is to recognise divorce only in proven cases of adultery and instances in which one of the partners converts to another religion or branch of Christianity. The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt does not recognise civil marriages.

Pope Shenouda III's Sunday sermon contained a response to the SAC ruling.

"We respect the judicial system," he said. "However, it is not binding on the church. Marriage is not only a religious matter, it is one of the Orthodox Church's seven sacraments. Nothing on earth will force us to abide by anything that contradicts Biblical teaching."

More than 700 people a year apply to the Coptic Orthodox Church's Ecclesiastical Council for permission to divorce and remarry and the church's strict position on remarriage has been subject to growing criticism.

Bishop Morcos, the church's media spokesman, says each case is carefully investigated. Other than adultery, the church grants divorces in cases where one of the partners is shown to be mentally unstable or sexually impaired. And in cases of adultery, it is only the innocent partner whose remarriage the church recognises.

The church does not recognise the second marriages of Copts whose initial divorce was granted in civil courts without its prior approval.

The recent verdict draws attention to contradictions between the position of the church and the civil legal code.

"The recent court ruling reveals tensions between the church and state," says Azza Suleiman, manager of the Centre for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance (CEWLA). "It exposes Pope Shenouda's desire to impose his will over the Christian community in preference to the authority of the state."

aguib Gobrail, head of the Egyptian Human Rights Federation and a Copt who has spent almost 30 years working as a lawyer, expects that the church will appeal the verdict in front of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC). Saturday's verdict, he says, is not the first of its kind.

"None of the previous verdicts were binding on the church and the latest is no different."

Gobrail, who is a church counsellor, argues that the verdict highlights the need for the People's Assembly to pass a unified personal status law for all sects of Christianity.

"We say, what God has joined together, let man not separate," says Bishop Morcos. The Ecclesiastical Council, he argues, is the only authority entitled to resolve marriage disputes between Christians in Egypt and issue marriage and remarriage permits.

"If someone gets a divorce ruling from the court without the church's prior approval and then wants to remarry, it is not in my power to allow him or her to remarry according to the church's regulations," said Bishop Morcos. "How can we be ordered to do something that is against the teaching of the Holy Book? I don't blame the judge; he is a Muslim judge ruling in Coptic affairs, about which he most probably knows nothing. What do you expect from him?"

The solution, according to Morcos and Gobrail, is to approve the draft unified law for family affairs for Christians, submitted to the People's Assembly almost 25 years ago. The draft law, which comprises 146 articles, sets procedures for Christian engagements, marriage, annulment of marriages, parental responsibility, divorce and separation.

"In 1998 Pope Shenouda III proposed a second draft of the law to the Ministry of Justice, which is where it is stuck," says Morcos.

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