Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 June - 6 July 2011
Issue No. 1054
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Looking for the exit

As part of efforts to break free of failed marriages, Copts are planning protests for a civil right to divorce, reports Dena Rashed

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Copts want to be able to get divorced

Till death do us part -- or maybe not. Marriage for some of Egypt's Copts is becoming a more worldly matter in which some couples can't see hope in their union. For this reason, a group of Copts, named "the Right to Live", is organising a protest on 7 July to demand the right to divorce in civil courts.

The organiser of the event is Ayman George, an Al-Ahram journalist who believes that it is the right of those who have experienced irreconcilable differences in their marriage to get a divorce. According to George, the civil courts are the best way forward for such people, as the Coptic Church will not grant a divorce except in cases of adultery.

"Since 1938, there has been a list of nine reasons justifying divorce, but in 2008 Pope Shenouda III limited it to adultery and the changing of denomination," George said. Since it is difficult to change denomination, this has tended to trap individuals in failed marriages.

George recalls extreme cases of Copts changing their religion, perhaps in order to be granted a divorce. One such case concerned the now infamous Abeer, a Copt who left her abusive husband and married a Muslim and claimed that she had been held against her will in a church in the Cairo district of Imbaba, her new husband apparently calling on Salafist friends to free her.

The result was 15 dead and hundreds injured in clashes between Muslims and Christians. George also mentioned the case of a woman called Irene, murdered by her husband because the couple could not get a divorce. Obviously, not all failed marriages end in tragedy, but George asserts that there should be a better way to end them.

However, his calls are not appreciated by many Copts, and he admits that an Internet page he has set up to forward his goal has been the target of insults, some of those writing in accusing him of blasphemy.

"I respect the Church, and what I am calling for is not unreasonable," George said. "If we are calling for a civil state in Egypt, then why can we not have a civil answer to the almost 300,000 people asking for a divorce?"

Another Copt who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly and preferred to remain anonymous is a 35-year-old mother of a boy now aged 10. Although she is originally from Upper Egypt, where divorce is frowned upon, she has decided to join the protest.

Separated from her husband for seven years and apparently not seeing him or even having his phone number, she says that her relationship turned sour on the second day of the marriage.

"After only three months of knowing him, we tied the knot, and I was tied into a marriage that involved physical abuse. My son was a miracle from God," she says. She decided to wait three years, in order that she could claim abandonment, though she says that friends told her to accuse him of adultery and even find false witnesses to speed up the proceedings.

"I couldn't do it," she said, "so I decided to wait. But I don't think I can remain like this much longer. I don't feel happy, and I don't want to live life as a kind of nun. I am a human being, after all."

She said that the two reasons the Coptic Church recognises for divorce are insufficient and that there is a need for a civil procedure. "I don't want to die with my husband's name on my ID card. It is a psychological matter for me. I want to breathe in freedom."

Many others are living through similar unhappy circumstances, she said, and there should be a legal procedure that would assist them in getting a divorce. For his part, George said that there were online groups to discuss the issue, and that now was the time for a message to be sent to the public authorities.

However, there is opposition to easing the regulations in the Church, and Father Basilios of the Virgin Mary Church in the Moqattam district of Cairo told the Weekly that "divorce is against the Bible. If someone wants to go against the Bible's words, he or she should not try to force the Church to do so as well. I am a priest and am bound by the word of God."

Nevertheless, Father Basilios said that people should be able to get a civil divorce, though this would disqualify them from a further religious marriage. "This they will need to do in court as well, as the Pope has announced."

Father Basilios acknowledged that many foreign countries had civil marriages and divorces, but, he said, in these countries civil law was considered more important than religious.

Nothing can equal the joy of getting married in church, he said, and anyone contracting a civil marriage will be missing the spiritual aspect of marriage. He also said that the Church stood ready to help couples reconcile their differences.

"If people choose their partners on a good basis and turn to the Church when they encounter difficulties, they will not feel trapped in their marriage," he said. Have those now asking for divorce practised confession and received communion, he asked. "I don't think this can be the case. Any man who reads the Bible cannot hit his wife."

"I intervene in the lives of many people as part of my role as a priest, and I have personally managed to help many couples," he said.

Other Copts, like Ivette Emil, who is married with children, argue that divorce is not an option for Christians. "For us, it is not just any other form of contract. Instead, it is something that is given by God and founded at the time of Adam and Eve. As a result, I believe it is better for couples to reconcile their differences rather than think about divorce. In my opinion, 90 per cent of conflicting marriages are reconcilable, if couples make an effort to do so," she said.

Although many devout Christians are against divorce, that will not stop those Copts who feel that there should be some way out from a failed marriage. "People cannot be allowed to feel that they have no exit," George said. "It is a right and more than a simple request."

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