Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 June 2010
Issue No. 1002
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

When the personal becomes political

Pope Shenouda III remains implacable in opposition to a Supreme Administrative Court ruling stating that the Coptic Orthodox Church should allow Christians to remarry, reports Reem Leila

A meeting of 90 bishops and priests from the Coptic Orthodox Church was held on 8 June to discuss the Supreme Administrative Court's (SAC) 29 May ruling allowing the remarriage of divorced Christians. Pope Shenouda III headed the meeting, which was followed by an international press conference at the Coptic Cathedral in Abbasiya.

On Wednesday Egyptian Christians demonstrated in front of the Orthodox Church to support the Pope and his decision.

Since the ruling Pope Shenouda has been sending indirect messages to the regime that he will react against any challenges Christians might face. On Tuesday he clarified his position in front of more than 100 national and international correspondents, announcing his rejection of the SAC ruling and his intention to send a petition to President Hosni Mubarak.

"Although we respect the judicial system it is not binding on the church. Marriage is one of the church's seven sacraments. Nothing on earth will oblige us to abide by anything that contradicts with Biblical teaching," he told reporters.

The Coptic Orthodox Church's Ecclesiastical Council, priests and bishops, and a majority of its congregation were opposed to the ruling, said the Pope.

"The court must reconsider the ruling lest the world believe that Christians in Egypt are being suppressed and oppressed. We do not want the world to consider Egypt to be a place where Christians cannot perform their religious rituals," Pope Shenouda stated.

The SAC rejected an appeal made by Pope Shenouda III against an earlier judgement requiring the church to allow two Christians to remarry following divorce. "The Egyptian constitution guarantees that anyone may remarry and form a new family," said Judge Mohamed El-Husseini, head of the SAC. "The appeal made by Pope Shenouda III to prevent Copts from remarrying is accordingly rejected."

The Pope criticised the timing of the ruling, which immediately precedes the Shura Council elections, and comes ahead of People's Assembly and presidential elections. "The timing is counter to Egypt's welfare. It splits Egyptian society, embarrassing the state as well as the Christians, and deflecting Christians' attention from important matters to other issues," said the Pope.

During the press conference Pope Shenouda III denied allegations stating that the church is an independent state within a state. "This is nonsense. Christians are allowed to vote and run for elections. If we were a state within a state we would not have been allowed to exercise any of the rights granted to us as Egyptians," explained Shenouda.

Family status law number 462 was adopted in 1955 and applied to all Egyptians. It replaced melli (community) courts with civil personal status courts. Pope Shenouda III pointed out that Article 7 of the law stipulates that divorce applications be judged on the basis of Islamic Sharia for Muslims, and that those made by members of non-Muslim communities should be decided according to their own religious principles or regulations. Unfortunately, he continued, the principles incorporated for Copts were based on a 1938 Maglis Melli (community council) opinion, composed by people with little knowledge of Coptic Christianity, and which allowed divorce if one of several conditions pertained: adultery; conversion to another religion or sect; absence for a period of five consecutive years with no news of whereabouts; sentencing of one of the spouses to seven years imprisonment; mental illness, contagious illness, or impotence; serious domestic violence; debauchery or immoral behaviour; separation for at least three years as a result of untenable marital life or in the case of a spouse joining a monastery.

In October 1962 Pope Kyrillos VI demanded the amendment of the 1938 code. In 1971 Pope Shenouda III, as one of the first acts of his papacy, issued Papal Decree 7 doing just that. The Clerical Council for Family Affairs (CCFA) henceforth imposed stricter rules, granting permission to remarry only in cases of adultery and the death of one of the spouses.

The amendments made by the Pope are opposed by many Copts seeking divorce. Ayman Mourice has been unsuccessfully seeking a divorce for two years.

"The Pope's limiting divorce and remarriage to cases of adultery is unfair. It is against human nature," he argues. "Which would the church prefer, for someone to have a stable life or to live illicitly with some woman?" wondered Mourice.

Sameh Fawzi, a Coptic political analyst, believes that the only solution is to approve the Christians' unified personal status law, though, he argues, it must first be amended "in order to reach a compromise which satisfies the state, Christians and the church".

Hafez Abu Seada, head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), says Pope Shenouda is misguided in defying the court's ruling.

"If anyone decides not to respect the judicial system then chaos will prevail."

Abu Seada agrees with Fawzi regarding the unified personal status law for Christians. "The only solution to this dilemma is to comply with the laws of the state," he said.

According to Bishop Paula, head of the CCFA, the number of Christians seeking divorce does not exceed 300 cases per year. "Any other figures are an exaggeration. We are dealing with minority of Christians who want to violate Biblical teachings."

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