Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The monogamous twitch

Nader Habib weighs in the recent administrative court ruling giving Copts the right to divorce and re-marry

Copts are widely opposed to the notion of legalising divorce and remarriage. Not so paradoxical a stance, considering the circumstances in which the question was raised: the administrative court ruling that brings about the change is seen as an intervention in the application of the Coptic Orthodox Church principles on the part of a Muslim-majority judiciary. And it comes in a country where secular marriage is not a legal option.

Still, those Copts who have been awaiting a clerical marriage license for years have welcomed the developments. And there are those who endorse them: Milad Hanna, a high- profile intellectual, conceded that divorce in Christianity is only possible in the case of adultery. But, he expressed the view that, in light of current social realities, those Copts separated from their spouses should be able to divorce them and marry others -- a privilege the Coptic Church tends to withhold from them, keeping them waiting. Hanna's point is that, in effect, the Church is merely complicating matrimonial procedures.

Though not a supporter of the ruling, housewife Heba Shoukry too believes the clerical laws relating to matrimony are in need of revision. "It ends up merely forcing Copts to change their sect."

An authoritative work, The Law of Monogamy in Christianity, written by Pope Shenouda III in 1958, stresses that monogamy is the essence of Christian marriage -- a canon law derived from the Holy Bible and upheld within church law, whether received from the Apostles or from ecumenical and regional synods. According to Mathew, "Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be lost in heaven."

Marriage in Egypt is legally registered, Anba Bessanty, Bishop of Maasara and Helwan, explained; this makes divorce through a court of law standard procedure. So far, so good. But when it comes to remarriage, the Bishop goes on, "it is the church's business, for we follow the words of Jesus Christ when He was asked, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for [just] any reason?' He answered, 'whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery' (Mathew 5:22)."

Thus, the Church allows "civic" divorce, but "when it comes to remarriage, it's a different story," the Bishop said. "A license to remarry is granted in only one of three cases," the Bishop adds for good measure, "adultery (a license for remarriage is given to the innocent party); forsaking the creed (a license is given to the party who maintains the creed); and when it is proven that the marriage was invalid in the first place. The Bishop adds that the ruling will be appealed on the grounds that it contradicts Christianity.

Anba Bola, Bishop of Gharbiya and the papal deputy of the clerical council responsible for personal affairs in the Orthodox Church since 1989, on the other hand, referred to Law 19 for 1927, which states that no body other than the clerical council, built by state decree in 1882, has the authority to license marriage; will the Egyptian judiciary, he asked, question the authority of a body established by the government to manage Copts' affairs? Clerical deacon Fadel Tawfik likewise wonders: "By which law -- Islamic or Christian -- was the ruling issued? For it is also true that Islam gives people of the Book, including Christians, the right to live by their own personal status code. So long as you are a member of a church, which has the constitutional right to operate freely among its constituency, you must abide by that church's rules."

The ruling, Tawfik added, seems to uphold the individual's right to remarry while dispossessing the Church of its own right to practice its own version of traditional Christianity. For priest Basilious Guirgis, Father of the St Mary Church in Moqattam, the issue is that the rulings of personal status courts, whether in the case of Muslims or Christians, follow rather than precede the rulings of the religious authority in question. A Muslim cannot legally marry or divorce without first obtaining the relevant papers from the religious authority; so, too, with Christians, except that there is no such thing as divorce in the Coptic Church.

Pharmacist Talaat Nessim stressed that a long period of engagement is critically important. The couple might decide to separate during the engagement period before marriage. Moreover, the engagement period allows couples time to undergo medical check-ups.

For his part, human rights activist George Isaac blamed parliament for not fine-tuning non-Muslim personal status laws. He believes it is government incompetence that is to blame. The non-Muslim Personal Affairs Law that was being drafted 25 years ago while Sufi Abu Taleb headed parliament, he explained, is still pending review, with some 90,000 cases of divorce awaiting the rule of law -- in vain; the same goes for the law governing the building of non-Muslim houses of worship, he added. It is the government's policy, according to Isaac, to complicate the simple details of life, whether for Muslims or Copts, with the object of diverting attention away from the real issues. On the other hand, most will agree, Pope Shenouda III remains the sole authority on the issue. "No power on earth can force the Orthodox Church to do anything against the words of the Holy Bible, or against its own conscience. Whoever marries a divorced Copt without license from the clerical council ... I will defrock him whatever his rank might be," the Coptic Pope warned.

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