Protesting for the right to divorce
Copts seeking the right to divorce and remarry feel they are still between a rock and a hard place, writes Rasha Sadek
For the third time in a week, Copts protesting outside the Orthodox Cathedral in Abbasiya in Cairo this week were forced to retreat without their demands being heard by clergymen.
On Monday, tens of Copts gathered outside the Cathedral calling for the right to divorce and remarry. However, security men would not allow the demonstrators, who demanded to meet with head of the Coptic Church Pope Shenouda III in order to protest against what they called the "intransigence" of the Church's Clerical Council, into the building.
Among the protesters' demands are "removing Bishop Paul from his post as head of the Clerical Council [in charge of Copts' personal affairs], applying the regulations of 1938 that grant divorce for nine reasons and issuing remarriage permits for those who have already divorced," said Hani Ezzat, one of the demonstrators.
"I divorced 12 years ago, and until today I can't remarry because according to the current law the Church has to grant me a remarriage permit first, which it hasn't," he said.
Many of the protesters outside the doors of the Cathedral on Monday had converged in front of the Clerical Council building inside the Cathedral grounds a week earlier.
In what became known as the "Battle of the Dog" after the "Battle of the Camel" in Tahrir Square during the 25 January Revolution, security agents placed a dog in front of the Clerical Council building to intimidate protesters voicing the same demands.
Police reinforcements were also called to disperse crowds who had encircled Bishop Paul upon his arrival at the building.
Two days later, during Pope Shenouda's weekly sermon, a number of Copts shouted out, demanding the right to divorce and remarry. The protesters were immediately escorted outside by security.
Last Thursday, a papal announcement was issued suspending the work of the Clerical Council until mid-August. According to Church sources, Pope Shenouda had made the announcement in order to "avoid confrontation with the angry sons of the Church," who had promised to come back to press their demands.
Further angering Copts demanding the right to divorce was a Church announcement on Saturday that "the Orthodox Church is seeking the application of the unified personal status law for Christians as soon as possible, in order to end the problem between the Church and the judiciary."
Sources in the Church later said that "the Pope contacted high-level state officials to accelerate passing the unified law [between the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches] that will limit the legitimate reasons for divorce among Christians to adultery."
"If passed and applied in court, the law will be our death sentence," said Ayman George, an organiser of the Right to Live group that started a Facebook page calling for a civil revision of the personal status laws governing Egypt's Christians.
"There has to be a civil way out. Divorce based only on adultery is going to defame the dignity and honour of thousands of families and ruin the psyche of their children," George said.
With some ambiguity still surrounding the Copts' unified personal status law, finalised by the Pope in 2009, there is frustration among some Copts that the new law may not include any legal exit from failing marriages aside from proven adultery or a change in religion.
Ikram Lamei, a professor of comparative religion, told Al-Ahram Weekly that "it is inhumane to limit divorce to reasons of adultery. To solve this problem, the state has to grant Copts the right to a civil marriage and divorce."
Lamei believes the rise in cases of Copts converting to Islam is primarily caused by "the stubbornness of the Clerical Council in granting divorce" and its amending the regulations of 1938 in 2008 to limit divorce to cases of adultery and changes of religion or religious denomination.
Father Basilios, head of the Muqattam Church, insisted that "the Church will not go against the teachings of the Bible, nor will it change its legislation for anyone. At the same time, the Church cannot stop civil divorce and marriage if this is applied in court."
"The problem does not lie with the Church," he told the Weekly. "The problem lies with the state, which hasn't issued a law allowing civil marriage and divorce."
Asked whether the Church would allow Copts some way out of failing marriages apart from its ruling on adultery and changes in religion, Father Basilios said that "in Orthodox teaching, one learns the importance of making the right choice and enduring the consequences."
"With more than 300,000 cases pending in court and no solution in sight, an explosion in the Coptic community can easily be foreseen, especially after the announcement that the Pope is seeking to pass the unified personal status law as soon as possible," George warned.
All the indications are that if there ever will be a civil law for Copts it will not be passed until the next People's Assembly is formed, and until then the problem of Coptic divorce and remarriage will continue to be present.
Coptic protesters are planning another demonstration in front of the Cathedral in Abbasiya today, Thursday, at 4pm.