An emergency meeting of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church has been called in Cairo for 8 June 2010 to discuss the recent judgement of Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court concerning the remarriage in church of divorced persons.
Writing to H.E. Metropolitan Bishoy, the General Secretary of the Holy Synod, Abba Seraphim, who is unable to attend, has asked that he should convey to His Holiness Pope Shenouda his assurance that “the British Orthodox clergy and people are in complete agreement with his statements concerning the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony and his fidelity to the scriptural injunctions concerning its indissolubility. Whilst we respect the rights of governments to legislate in matters civil, it belongs to the Church alone to administer or withhold the holy sacraments.”
On 29 May 2010 Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) rejected an appeal by His Holiness Pope Shenouda against a ruling requiring the Coptic Orthodox Church to allow its faithful to remarry following a divorce. The judgement stated, “By law, a Christian can remarry and the constitution guarantees his rights to have a (new) family. “The right of every Egyptian to form a family is enshrined in the Egyptian constitution,” said Judge Mohamed El-Husseini. “The appeal made by Pope Shenouda III to prevent Copts from remarrying is therefore rejected.” Pope Shenouda III’s Sunday sermon contained a response to the SAC ruling. “We respect the judicial system,” he said. “However, it is not binding on the church. Marriage is not only a religious matter, it is one of the Orthodox Church’s seven sacraments. Nothing on earth will force us to abide by anything that contradicts Biblical teaching.”
In 1955, however, Family Status Law 462 was adopted and applied to all Egyptians. Accordingly, the various community courts were abolished and 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. Unfortunately the Egyptian courts have applied a personal status code issued by the Coptic Orthodox Maglis Melli (Community) Council, composed of laymen, in 1938. For the Coptic Orthodox, Articles 50 to 58 of Law 462 stipulates that a plaintiff may be granted divorce if his or her spouse commits or falls under one of the following categories stipulated in the 1938 personal status code: adultery; conversion to another religion; absence for a period of five consecutive years with no news of whereabouts; being judged and sentenced to seven years imprisonment; mental illness, a contagious illness, or impotence (with no recovery for at least three years); serious domestic violence; debauchery or immoral behaviour; separation for at least three years as a result of untenable marital life and joining a monastic order.
This code was issued at a time widely regarded as an era of weakness in the Coptic Church which nevertheless consistently opposed the code on grounds that it went against the teachings of the Bible. Christian couples who sought a quick divorce had the option of filing for divorce according to Islamic shar’ia where a man may single-handedly divorce his wife for any reason. All it took was for one of the spouses to change his or her denomination and the man to declare his wish for divorce and take the matter to court. Since the couple would then belong to two different denominations, and there being no unified law for Christians, the court would apply Islamic shar’ia and divorce would be instantly granted. In October 1962 Pope Kyrillos VI demanded the amendment of the 1938 code. In 1971 Pope Shenouda III, as one of the first acts of his papacy, issued Papal Decree No. 7. This ordered the Clerical Council for Family Affairs (CCFA) to make the rules stricter and to only grant permission to remarry in cases in which a court’s divorce ruling was essentially based on adultery and denying remarriage permits for couples who divorced through the civil courts, unless the divorce was based on adultery.
In 1978 Christian leaders met together and proposed an act unifying the personal status law for Christians. All the heads of the various Churches in Egypt signed the act. In 1980 the act was submitted to the Justice Ministry for presentation to Parliament as new legislation. Nothing further was done about it, however, and when, in 1998, Pope Shenouda III drew the attention of then Justice Minister Farouq Seif al-Nasr, the latter asked for the act to be again officially presented to the ministry, which the Church accordingly did. Yet again the act was shelved.
Pope Shenouda III has repeatedly stated that no power on earth can force the church to go contrary to the teachings of the Bible, and these clearly state that there can be no divorce except in case of adultery, a principle which is non-existent in civil law. The administrative court ruling was based upon the Egyptian Constitution which stipulates that every citizen has the right to marry and form a family. Munssif Naguib, the pope’s lawyer, has commented that the number of divorcees reportedly seeking remarriage is exaggerated; some claim they are anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 while the actual number of cases before the Coptic patriarchate does not exceed a few thousand. However, in October 2006 a report issued by the commissioners of the Supreme Administrative Court demanded that it should issue a final ruling to annul the primary ruling. The report explained that marriage is a sacrament in the Church, can only be contracted according to religious rites and rituals which must be conducted through a priest, and thus the Church alone had the right to grant marriage annulments and remarriage permits. Nothing, the report declared, should force the Church to go against its beliefs.
On 23 February, 2007, the High Administrative Court, presided by Judge Mohamed El-Husseini and including five other member judges (all Muslims), ruled in the case no. 13719/59 that following a divorce ruling by a civil family status court, the Coptic Orthodox Church was required to issue permission to remarry in the Church. Beyond the paradox of the seeming interference in the Church’s teachings and rituals, the ruling stated that it was “based on Shari’a–considering that it was the general and public legal order whose application is obligatory.” The ruling came after two Egyptian Copts, Hani Wasfi and Magdi William, began a case contesting the Pope’s refusal to issue marriage permits that would allow them to remarry after their first marriages ended in divorce. In March 2008 it was against this ruling that Pope Shenouda appealed.
Specifically civil marriage alone, without a religious ceremony, is not recognized in Egypt. Under Egypt’s personal laws, marriage and divorce proceedings are based on the couple’s religion. The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt does not recognise civil marriages nor does it recognise the second marriages of Copts whose initial divorce was granted in civil courts without its prior approval.
In a televised interview following the latest court ruling, Pope Shenouda said, “In family affairs, we don’t consider court verdicts, but biblical rules. Therefore, it isn’t the first time, I said before, we don’t allow marriage for the divorced, save according to the church teaching based upon the Bible and Church laws. Moreover, I read in newspapers, ‘The Pope prevents second marriages.’ I don’t do so. For example, widowers whose wives died can remarry. Someone who is divorced according to the Church laws, the innocent party can remarry. We only prevent it for those divorced against Biblical teachings. That’s the issue. If a person is a Christian, then he should behave according to the Christian laws. How can a person commit sin and ask us to marry him ? We cannot marry him. Therefore, we won’t marry those who want to marry by force. No to marriage by force. ….. If a person want a civil permit from a civil authority to get married, he can get married civilly if he wishes since he chose this way. But if he chose the Church he should abide by the Church laws. In such issues we are very serious. What does this mean ? We can never relent. If we relent we disobey our religion, which is impossible. If someone wants to marry he can marry freely, but away from us. Again, if someone tries to deceive any clergyman to marry him, the priest will be unfrocked and the married person won’t be allowed in the Church. Is it clear ? If anyone has an ear, let him hear.”