CAIRO: Egyptian Pope Shenouda III this week took his most confrontational public stance since his stand-off with former president Anwar Sadat in September 1981 when about one month before his assassination, Sadat signed a decree deposing Pope Shenouda and ordering him into exile at a monastery in the Nirtian Desert in.
It was only four years later in 1985 that President Mubarak released the Pope upon a decision of Egypt’s High Court.
Since then the Pope has carefully treaded his relationship with the state, even publicly endorsing the ruling National Democratic Party to the consternation of some members of Egypt’s Coptic community, which makes up between six to 10 percent of the population.
However, earlier this week, the Pope broke his appeasement policy when Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court issued what the church considered to be a provocative ruling obliging it to issue a remarriage license to divorced Orthodox Coptic plaintiff Hani Wasfi, setting a dangerous precedent to what the Pope regards as "a completely religious issue," not an administrative matter.
Supported by the Holy Synod, some 80 Bishops and the majority of the Coptic community, Pope Shenouda warned that the timing of the verdict was worrying and dangerous.
"The state complains about the stance of some Diaspora Copts, but we calmed them [the Diaspora Copts] down and now the state is taking a step that will jeopardize these efforts," his Holiness said at a press conference at St. Mark’s Cathedral on Tuesday.
His words were a clear signal to the authorities that the Church will not tolerate interference in its sacred affairs and may choose to halt efforts to discredit claims by Copts living in the West that Egypt’s Christians are subjected to persecution and systematic discrimination because of their minority faith; claims that have long embarrassed the Egyptian regime.
It was thus no surprise that within 48 hours of the press conference, the Supreme Administrative Court agreed to a writ by Pope Shenouda which effectively suspends the implementation of the verdict until the case is reconsidered by the court since Administrative Court rulings cannot technically be appealed.
To the rest of the world, this unusual confrontation may very well look like a stand-off between a Muslim majority and a Christian minority, a notion that the Pope blatantly alluded to when he said that it was unlikely that the Church would turn to President Mubarak to resolve this case, adding that “we don’t want to put the President in an awkward position, but we know that he won’t ignore the ordeal of millions of angry Copts over the interference in their faith."
To me, however, the situation is not one of religious discrimination as much as it is one about how the Egyptian state chooses to identify itself: Is it secular? Is it religious? Can it be both?
According to a 2007 article by Adel Guindy, a political writer on Middle East affairs and a senior editor of the (Coptic) Egyptian weekly Watani that was published by on globalpolitician.com, there is no strictly civil marriage law in Egypt. "Standard" marriage procedures are "religious" and "civilian" at the same time, writes Guindy.
He further explains that “the authorized priest, for Christians, or the ma’zoun [marriage registrar] for Muslims (literally "the authorized" imam), performs a religious ceremony and also acts as an agent for the state. The ma’zoun or priest issues a formal Act of Marriage and also completes a state register, which provides detailed information and lists witnesses. It is this formal registration that is of importance to the state, whereas the religious ceremony is considered a personal matter.” ?
In the article, Guindy elaborates that in 1938, the Coptic Community Council adopted an ordinance that outlined nine reasons to be considered for divorce, but in 1955, Family Status Law 462 was adopted and applied to all Egyptians … abolishing community courts that were replaced by civil courts (personal status courts). Article 7 of the law stipulates the application of the religious basis for divorce (Shari’a for Muslims, and the corresponding religious principles or regulations for each of the non-Muslim communities), provided that both spouses belong to the same denomination.
For Christians, he continues “marriage — from a religious standpoint — cannot be broken by the single will of either spouse or by their combined wills since it is a sacrament. For those interested in keeping communion with their own church, its consent must be sought, according to certain conditions. This consent becomes more critical if a divorcee (following a ruling by a civil personal status court) wishes to remarry within his or her church. If that church deems a divorce was not according to its teaching, remarriage will not be authorized. Thus, the individual is left with the option of remarrying in another church (usually Protestant, which is more lenient in that regard), after "converting" to the new denomination.”?
According to Church doctrine, a marriage can be terminated through "annulment" or "dissolution." The term "divorce" is used in the courts and also in the Church when resulting from "adultery".
Problems arose when rules were made stricter in 1971, says Guindy when an estimated 50,000 cases of civil divorce were reportedly attempting to obtain permission to remarry within the Coptic Orthodox Church, even though some argue that the number does not exceed 12,000 cases.
I agree with Copts I spoke who generally sympathize with the plight of those stuck without reconciliation or Church permissions, but almost unanimously they disapprove of what they see as the impudent idea of a court order imposing its authority on their sacred religious affairs.
The question is, why has the Egyptian state been reluctant to discuss a 1980 draft Personal Status law for Christians that was formulated by a committee of eight jurists: two from each of the Catholic and the Evangelical Churches, and four from the Coptic Orthodox Church?
In 1998, eighteen years after the draft law was left to collect dust on the shelves of the Ministry of Justice, the People’s Assembly said that it planned to discuss the new law, at which point the Pope called upon the representatives of Egypt’s various churches to revive the project and update it with the necessary amendments.
Yet, till this very day the unified law has not been discussed, despite the vocal demands of secular Copts to finalized a law as a response to the growing frustration of Christian divorcees who do not want to forgo the blessings of the church to meet their basic human right to remarry.
The state has been skirting the issue for decades, looking at it from a purely political prism and characteristically ignoring the cumulative discontent by both the Coptic community at large and the Church in specific.
Since the Egyptian state has decided that it will not (at least not in the near future) accommodate “ultra-liberal” notions of having a purely civil marriage law that could (God-forbid) allow inter-religious marriages, then how can the Admin Court come up with a ruling that is clearly trying to twist the Church’s arm. No matter how much sympathy one has to the predicament of men and women locked in the limbo of the Church’s disapproval, only a unified law agreed on by all the Christian denomination, and endorsed by the Pope can solve this pressing human rights issue.
There has to be an end to this state security approach to Egyptians’ personal lives and the rule of a law agreed on by the representatives of the Coptic community must ultimately prevail.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.