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Coptic Dispute with the Egyptian Government
10-06-2010, 11:34 AM,
Coptic Dispute with the Egyptian Government
An emergency meeting of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church was held in Cairo on 8 June 2010 to discuss the recent judgement of Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court concerning the remarriage in church of divorced persons (referred to in a previous posting here).

Details of the reasons for the Synod meeting can be found at <!-- m --><a class="postlink" href=""> ... y-meeting/</a><!-- m -->
and the resolution passed by the Synod can be found at <!-- m --><a class="postlink" href=""> ... oly-synod/</a><!-- m -->

The situation in Egypt can be somewhat confusing to those of us from essentially Western countries. In countries like England and Australia, the civil law does not involve itself in canon law or the Church’s law of marriage. A person can enter into a civil marriage (which may not be recognized by the Church) or a person can enter into a religious marriage (which may not be recognized by the State). Or a person may undergo one marriage ceremony which is simultaneously both a civil and a religious marriage. In some countries (like France) this final option is not possible. A person must undergo a civil marriage before civil authorities, and then, if they wish to marry according to the law of the Church, undergo a religious ceremony before Church authorities. But the law of the State does not purport to exercise any authority over the law of the Church. The State may not recognise some religious marriages, and may grant divorces contrary to Church law, but it does not attempt to tell the Church what it can or cannot do.

In some countries (like Egypt) there is a complex relationship in which Church law and State law are merged in relation to marriage and divorce; this derives, essentially, from the period of Islamic conquest when some Christian communities were effectively granted (civil) legal authority over their own members, and therefore the State purported to exercise authority over the Church.

The problem facing the Coptic Orthodox Church (and potentially other Churches, like the Roman Catholic Church) in Egypt is that the highest court now seems to be saying that the State has the authority to regulate the Church’s canon law regarding marriage and divorce.

His Holiness Pope Shenouda and the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church have (rightly, in my view) objected to this claim of civil authority over Church law. Whether the Church allows the marriage of two people, or accepts the dissolution of such a marriage, or allows one or both parties to enter into another marriage, is entirely a question for the Church, applying its ancient tradition of canon law (which goes back to New Testament times and has a long history and literature).

The State can, of course, regulate civil marriage and divorce, and other religious communities (like Moslems) can regulate marriage and divorce according to their own laws. Sometimes the State may be justified in intervening if religious laws violate the general values of the society (for example, if a religious law allowed the marriage of children, or accepted marriage under coercion). But, in general, the requirements for sacramental marriage within the Church must be entirely a question for the law of the Church. People who do not accept that law should be free to marry (and divorce) outside the Church under civil law, but the Church must be free to accept or reject such marriages (or divorces) according to its own law. Those who do not wish to abide by the law of the Church are, or ought to be, free to reject it. They cannot then require that the Church accepts, or approves of, their decisions.

The danger in the current situation in Egypt is that of the State purporting to tell the Church how it can apply its own canon law (for example, that it must grant a divorce in one case, and allow remarriage). If the Australian government purported to require me to celebrate the Sacrament of Marriage for two people who were forbidden by canon law from marrying, I would refuse. If the government refused to recognise a marriage I had celebrated, I would accept that it has the civil authority to do so. This has, and can have, nothing to do with the law of the Church as to whether, in canon law, those two people are married.

Sadly, in countries like Egypt, this important distinction between Church (or other religious communities) and State has been dangerously blurred. As Metropolitan Seraphim stated in his response to the current situation in Egypt: “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.” And as His Holiness Pope Shenouda said: “If a person wants 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.”

Fr Gregory

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