Egyptian Copts demand right to divorce

Coptic pro-divorce movement "Right to Life" plans protest at Egypt's Justice Ministry demanding state immediately enact a civil marriage law.

coptic christian protest 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
coptic christian protest 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Egypt’s Coptic Church, one of the oldest Christian denominations, is being threatened with a major schism within its ranks over demands by congregants to be allowed to divorce.
Dozens of Christian protesters demonstrated across from St. Mark’s Church in Cairo Monday, clashing with police, as they petitioned their church’s clerical council to grant them second marriage permits. The Coptic Church, an orthodox denomination led by Pope Shenouda III, restricts divorce to cases of adultery or the religious conversion of one of the spouses.
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On Saturday, the Right of Life Movement, a Coptic group, threatened that a large number of its members would collectively leave the ranks of the church if they were not granted the right to divorce. The Egyptian daily Al-Wafd reported that some 150,000 members could potentially break away from the church, joining the evangelical or protestant denominations instead, which comprise just some 5% of Egypt’s Christians.
"It is my civil right to get a divorce, how dare they prevent that from me?" Rafik Farouk, an Egyptian Copt who wants to divorce his wife, told The Media Line. "The church and the court make it almost impossible to prove adultery. They leave us hanging."
Farouk said the Coptic Church was attempting to maintain the integrity of the family at all costs, fiercely guarding the monopoly given to it by the state in matters of marriage and divorce.
Family law is exclusively governed in Egypt by the religious denominations. A Christian may, however, leave his denomination and be judged by default under Islamic law, which is more lenient in allowing divorce.
"We are portrayed as fornicators who only follow our lust. Pope Shenouda keeps saying that we are acting against the New Testament," Farouk said.            
Up until 2008, Egyptian Christians divorced according to a 1938 bylaw which allowed them to separate under nine conditions including impotence, abandonment, abuse and mental disability. But local Christians accuse Pope Shenouda of recently limiting the permissible reasons to infidelity and conversion only.
"We could have left the church and accepted Islam, but we want to remain in the church," Farouk said, adding that the clerical council must become more cooperative and transparent. "We will continue to engage the Church until the last moment."
He added, however, that many of his friends would consider converting in order to attain a divorce and then rejoin the Church in order to remarry. "It's a trick," he said.
Ishaq Ibrahim, an expert on religious freedom at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based human rights watchdog, said that the exact number of Copts prevented from obtaining a divorce is unknown, but estimated it at a few thousand cases. It was pointless trying to convince the Church to change its policy, he believed, saying the only viable solution being the creation of a parallel track for civil marriage.
"We have no civil marriage in Egypt," he told The Media Line. "But marriage is the responsibility of the State, not the church. The state cannot force the church to change its doctrine, but it can create an alternative which will allow Christians to divorce without converting their religion."
Prior to Egypt's revolution in February, legislation of a unified personal status law for Egypt's Christian minority was underway. Christians comprise some 10% of the country's population of 80 million. Ibrahim said that the Anglican Church was the only Christian denomination which agreed to civil marriage in Egypt.
Inter-sectarian marriage is currently restricted in Egypt. Muslim men are allowed to marry Christian women, but Christian men are banned from marrying Muslim women unless they convert to Islam. Religions not legally defined as "heavenly" (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are not recognized by Egypt's family law.   
Right to Life, the Coptic pro-divorce movement, is planning to stage a large protest at Egypt's Justice Ministry on September 15, demanding the state immediately enact a civil marriage law.