Orthodox Copts seeking divorce say they are being forced to leave the Church, writes Rasha Sadek
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Copts sign the resignation from the Orthodox community outside the Ministry of Justice on 15 September
The Coptic Orthodox Church is struggling to respond after hundreds of Copts seeking the right to divorce and remarry announced their collective withdrawal from the Orthodox community on 15 September.
Having established a difference in sect by leaving the Church those who have resigned can now be granted a divorce under Islamic Sharia and remarry without a permit from the Church.
The move has caused a furore both within the Church and outside.
Pope Shenouda was quick to denounce the act of "sinners and adulterers" and insisted that he would "not back away from the teachings of the Holy Bible if it means every Orthodox Copt departs". Little chance, then, that he will change Bylaw 7. Issued immediately after his naming as pope in 1971 the bylaw restricts divorce and remarriage to cases of proven adultery.
Media reports, however, suggested that the Clerical Council, which is in charge of Copts' personal affairs, had issued nine remarriage permits on Sunday in an attempt to assuage the growing anger of those demanding the right to divorce and remarry.
Father Rweis Eweida, a member of the council, denied the claims. "The Clerical Council did issue 20 remarriage permits three weeks ago but only for Copts who had proven their spouses' adultery in court," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Reports have also appeared citing Church sources as saying that Pope Shenouda has ordered cases filed with the Clerical Council to be processed more quickly.
The news is unlikely to placate disgruntled Copts. In a televised interview Church lawyer Naguib Gobrail said 200,000 cases involving either divorce or remarriage are referred to the Clerical Council annually. Ayman George, founder of the Right to Live Movement, estimates that 300,000 personal status cases are pending in courts.
The number of permits issued is outrageous given the cases pending, says Kamal Zakher, head of the Secular Copts group. He attributes the current dilemma to "the 2008 amendment of the 1938 regulations which granted divorce in court for nine reasons, including irreconcilable differences, chronic illness and insanity. The 2008 amendment limited divorce to adultery, leaving thousands of Copts trapped in failed marriages."
It was not until 2008 that the Pope's Bylaw 7 was applied in courts.
Orthodox priests interviewed by the Weekly stress that the Clerical Council will only issue remarriage permits for the party who proved their spouse's adultery. Yet there appear to be many outstanding cases of innocent partners promised remarriage permits, sometimes as long as 12 years ago, who have yet to receive them.
Mary Saad (not her real name) is an angry 24-year-old divorcee who claims that "a year ago Bishop Paul [head of the Clerical Council] said I would be granted a remarriage permit, but on Monday I was told by the council that my file has been closed."
"With thousands of Copts unable to secure a divorce or remarry for many years it's only to be expected that the situation should have reached boiling point," said George.
Four protests held at the Abbasiya Cathedral in August by a Coptic group dubbed the 1938 Coalition resulted in the Clerical Council being suspended for two months, while in July and September the Right to Live Movement organised two vigils outside the Ministry of Justice.
Zakher sees the mass resignation from the Orthodox community as "a last call for help after all other avenues have been exhausted".
"The Church could have saved itself from this dilemma had it entered into constructive dialogue."
Dialogue, however, doesn't seem to be on the Church's agenda.
On Monday Pope Shenouda warned Orthodox priests against performing the last rites for those who have resigned.