Egypt’s Coptic Church may face schism over divorce law
Coptic Christians in Egypt may face a split within its ranks as thousands threaten to leave the church unless the laws of divorce are changed.
Christian activists in the Coptic Church, among the oldest Christian churches in Egypt, are demanding that churchgoers be allowed to divorce. Dozens of Christians took to the streets in front of St. Mark’s Church, Cairo, asking the church to give them permits for divorce and second marriages.
The protestors clashed with police. Last Saturday the Coptic Right of Life Movement said that a huge number of them might leave the church unless they were allowed to divorce.
It is estimated that up to 150,000 Copts may potentially leave the church and join a protestant or evangelical church denomination, both of which comprise up to 5 percent of the Christian population in Egypt, unless the issue is resolved.
One of the protesters, Rafik Farouk, told The Media Line, “It is my civil right to get a divorce. How dare they prevent that from me? The church and the court make it almost impossible to prove adultery. They leave us hanging.”
Under present rules, Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Church, only permits divorce if one of the two spouses changes religion, or in the case of adultery.
However, the Coptic Church is perceived by some as merely trying to hang onto its power, granted by the state, to be the sole arbiter in matters of divorce and marriage among its believers.
Under Egyptian law, matters of marriage and family are the exclusive domain of religious denominations. Some Copts are seeking legal marriages and legal divorces by government law as an alternative to this.
Recently a Facebook page was launched by the Right to Live Movement announcing that a peaceful vigil is being slated for Sept. 15, to be held at the Ministry of Justice, to demand for divorce and remarriage rights under the Coptic Church of Egypt.
This will be the second vigil that was organized by the group. The first one took place last July 7 in the same place. They seek the right to remarry legally without having to meet the requirement of presenting a Church permit.
They are also seeking the right to divorce through the services of a notary, provided that both parties agree. Finally, they would like the 1938 regulations of the courts to be applied without the need to present any church certification.
A statement on the Facebook page says, “The movement would like to bring to attention the fact that these demands do not by any means cause pressure against the Church or Christian dogma. These demands are simply a legal way out for those whose lives experience irreconcilable differences,” Ahram Online reported.
The statement said, according to Ahram Online, “Pope Shenouda had repeatedly said in his sermons that whoever wanted to divorce and remarry outside the Church was free to do so. Accordingly, we refuse to burden the Church with our demands. But, so far, the state hasn’t provided a civil, legal way out for those who want to divorce and remarry.”
Presently, in the absence of a legal alternative to divorce and marriage, Christians are permitted to leave their denomination and seek a divorce under Islamic law. Some Coptic Christians have considered converting to Islam to seek a divorce, then returned to the Coptic Church to remarry.
Farouk, however, is not satisfied with this. He told The Media Line, “We are portrayed as fornicators who only follow our lust. Pope Shenouda keeps saying that we are acting against the New Testament.”
Divorce and remarriage rules in the Coptic Church in Egypt only became stricter after 2008. Previous to that, the 1938 bylaw was applied, where nine conditions were specified for seeking divorce, among them abandonment, mental disability, abuse and impotence.
Under Shenouda the permissible circumstances for divorce and remarriage were limited only to conversion and infidelity. Farouk told The Media Line, “We could have left the church and accepted Islam, but we want to remain in the church. We will continue to engage the Church until the last moment.”
It is estimated that there may be thousands of cases of Copts who would like to have a divorce but are not allowed to.