By Suad Abu Ghazi
Cairo, Egypt, Date (Mada Masr) – On June 3, young women and men spoke out against the personal status law of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, especially clauses on marriage and divorce, to help resolve thousands of families stuck in legal limbo.
Their against the disputed law marked a turning point in relations between the head of the largest church in Egypt and Northeast Africa and its believers, who have been protesting internally for seven years against rules that allow divorce only in cases of adultery or conversion to another religion.
“Our lordship, we are your children,” shouted Said, 30, standing with the young people who gathered to grab the attention of Pope Tawadros 11 of Alexandria as he delivered his weekly sermon.
Said has been in legal limbo for five years since his wife left him five months into their marriage. He wants a church-sanctioned divorce, to confirm the civil divorce he obtained in March 2013.
“The bishops around the pope told us we would meet him,” Said said. “But they took our cards and turned us into the police, accusing us of inciting riots.”
Adel Fikri, in the same group, said he tried to meet with the Pope before the incident. “But meeting with President Sisi is easier than meeting with the Pope,” he says.
Fikri claimed that his friends also tried to meet with the Pope to no avail. These included Magdy Kamel, a member of the Coalition for the Victims of Personal Status Cases, “but the Pope kicked him out and told him he had no time for such matters,” Fikri said.
“I wish that the state would have mercy on us and work to spare us from the injustice of the church by allowing us to divorce,” said Youssef, who said he has suffered from the first month of his marriage in 2010.
“I would be born again if I got a divorce ruling,” added the diabetic father of two. He refused to lodge a complaint with the Clerical Council, saying it was futile. He did bring a case of “disobedience” against his wife before the Family Court, but she responded with three lawsuits demanding alimony for herself and her children, alleging that he beat her.
Origin of the problem
Complex divorce procedures started in 1971, when Pope Shenouda III, who died in 2012, excluded nine grounds for divorce previously included in the personal status laws issued by the Coptic General Congregation Council in 1938.
This disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of families, many of whom had to wait for church rulings to settle cases between disputing couples. Today, irreconcilable differences between couples are taking a huge toll on their lives, and their children.
Although the government has declared its neutrality, security services intervened to break up the June 3 protest, and arrested participants. Lawyers and activists say this reflects underlying bias against people seeking reform of church laws.
Since 2008, the Ministry of Justice has expressed no desire to close the gap between the church and civil courts, lawyers say. The only exception for divorce admissible by the church and civil courts came with the introduction of the definition of adultery as “any behavior that can be explained using clear evidence of marital betrayal by any of the two parties.” However, the gap remains, as no unified personal draft law has been implemented since Christian sects agreed to it in 1980.
Since 2008, the Orthodox Church – having amending 38 clauses – has refused divorce requests except for adultery and a change of religion. Neither spouse can divorce unless one accuses the other of adultery, or one confesses to adultery, which would ban him or her from remarrying, according to church laws. The other solution, albeit a costly one, is to obtain a certificate saying the husband or wife has changed religious denomination or converted to another religion.
Lawyers and people who have taken this option estimate that the cost of a certificate proving a change of denomination is 30,000-40,000 Egyptian pounds ($4,000 – $5,300).
But others remain stuck in an impasse and live in tension. Some divorce cases have even escalated to murder. In others one of the spouses has changed her religion to get rid of a failed marriage, this investigation uncovered.
The Orthodox Church estimates its followers make up around 98 percent of Egypt’s 15 million Copts. But an official from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics told local media that in their last census, from 1986, the number of Christians stood at 5 million, or 5.5 percent of the population of Egypt. The church rejects this figure.
Murder and More
Samah has languished in Minya General Prison sincei Nov. 14, 2012, when having been sentenced to death by the Minya criminal court, her papers were forwarded to the mufti. She was convicted of murdering and dismembering her husband after two years of fighting, during which the church rejected her request for divorce.
She confessed to the murder three times: to the police, the prosecutor, and then during a re-enactment of the crime. She did not change a word in her testimony, according to her lawyer Yutab Yacoub said.
This investigation has also documented the increasing complexity of Orthodox personal status matters, which have become a cause for crimes or religious sedition.
In 2011, Abir, a Christian woman living in Imbaba, Cairo, found no other way to split from her husband than to convert to Islam. This caused sectarian strife that resulted in 15 dead, 242 injured, and a church going up in flames.
Before that, there were two famous cases involving Camilia Shehata, the wife of a bishop in Minya, and Wafaa Constantine, the wife of a bishop in Wadi al-Natroun.
Just in the province of Assiut – to the south of Cairo – where 25-35 percent of the 4 million population are Copts, more than 1,000 cases of divorce or marriage annulment were registered between 1999 and 2004. Fifty-five involved a spouse converting to another faith, according to the Egyptian Women’s Issues Association, which focuses on Christian personal status issues.
Dispute Between the Church and Civil Courts
Many couples who obtain divorce documents from the church cannot get the same from the Ministry of Justice personal status courts, especially in the cases of “presumed adultery”.
A 2008 amendment to church regulation accepingt presumptive adultery as grounds for divorce was not matched by an amendment in the personal status law, which relies on Islamic sharia on matters of adultery. Sharia defines adultery as actual sexual intercourse witnessed by at least four people. Phone or electronic messages cannot be used as proof. In these cases, couples are de-facto divorced by the church but remain married before the state.
Wael said he discovered his wife’s affair with a Christian cleric three years ago. Phone recordings allowed him to file an adultery complaint before the misdemeanor court in south Cairo. The case lasted a year and a half, but his wife was exonerated because she was not caught in the act. The ruling accepted that the calls were sexual and authentic, but that the husband did not have enough proof for a conviction.
Wael and his wife are facing each other in court in two cases. He has filed for divorce, while she has filed for khulu [forced divorce], after she converted to a different Christian denomination. This means Islamic sharia is now applicable, in accordance with Article 3 of the 2000 amended by-law No. 10, from 2004, and that the law is applicable to personal status disputes between Christian spouses of different denominations.
The family court has dismissed the forced divorce case after finding that Wael changed denominations after she filed her case.. The husband filed a case against the bishop accusing him with incitement to immorality and debauchery. He is not optimistic. The “church and the courts both let me down,” he says.
Roumani, 43, resorted to filing a case to “renounce the Orthodox faith” before the administrative court. But the court did not rule that it fell under the “change of religion” category in Pope Shenouda’s amendments and rejected the divorce request.
Roumani’s marital problems began in 2006, eight months after he married. His wife left him when he contracted Hepatitis C. He has so far been unable to get a divorce ruling from the church as his request relates neither to adultery or a change of religion.
This author could not obtain figures on the number of people who took church-related disputes to the Administrative Court, but since Pope Tawadros 11 assumed his post, there have been several cases like that of Ashraf Anis.
He was the first Christian to renounce the Orthodox Church in March 2013, thus becoming a Christian without denomination. Anis asked the court to compel the church to issue an admission to prove the end of his affiliation, but the church declined to respond. Nearly 19 months later, the court ruled that the church was not an administrative entity that could be compelled by the court to take measures, and dismissed the case, noting that the litigant had the right to leave his denomination, according to the principle of freedom of religion enshrined in the constitution.
Mariam, 26, was kicked out of her marital home six months after getting married. “There was never any peace,” she said. “There was constant fighting, beating, and insults.” But she believed that going to the Clerical Council would be futile.
After a marriage that lasted three years, her husband left her in 2012. Mariam cannot divorce him, because she lacks allowable grounds. She also faces a “disobedience” case from a husband who left her with two children and no alimony.
Osama has faced difficulties since 2008. “We need a list like 38 that courts can rule on,” he said, referring to the article that states: “It is acceptable to request divorce if one of the spouses has abused the other, or did not perform his or her duty towards the other… leading to alienation and separation between them for three consecutive years.”
The issues between Osama, 55, and his wife, began in the first month of their marriage, in 1995. After they had had their second child, his wife showed him handwritten diaries showing she had agreed to marry him under pressure from her mother.
Osama did not seek divorce from the Clerical Council until 2008. However, the council rejected his request citing multiple reasons, including “failure of the husband to establish presumptive adultery.” Furthermore, a marriage may not be annulled years later on the basis that the wife was forced to marry, as the maximum period according to the regulations of the council for this is 60 days
Conflicting numbers and Withheld Information
It is difficult to obtain official statistics on the number of people affected by Christian personal status laws. Estimates vary between the church, NGOs, and the movements created by those affected.
Attempts over a month to obtain data from the Ministry of Justice ended with a refusal from the head of the Judicial Information Center at the Ministry.
However, the Egyptian Women’s Issues Center, an NGO, recorded 1,449 divorce issues in Cairo between 1999 and 2004. In Luxor, south of the capital, they counted 35 cases of divorce based on “alienation, adultery, and abandonment” and 51 cases of objection to “disobedience” warnings.
The Church Downplays the Problem
Bishop Boula, in charge of Christian Orthodox personal status matters, told Al-Watan newspaper in January: “All divorce and second marriage cases that reach us involving Copts inside and outside Egypt do not exceed 800 cases annually. A large number are requests for second marriage permits.”
Magdy Kamel, from the Coalition for the Victims of Personal Status Cases, stressed that up to 200,000 personal status cases have piled up in civil courts since 2008.
Ramsis Najjar, the church’s lawyer under Pope Shenouda III, said between 6,000 and 8,000 families are affected, according to statistics he collected from personal status courts.
Hani Izzat, founder of the Coptic Personal Status Victims’ League, an entity active on social media but with no legal recognition, puts the figure at 8,000.
Bishop Daniel – head of the Clerical Council in Cairo – told Al-Ahram newspaper in June that the he has received 100 cases in Cairo since 2010.
However, he told Al-Masri Al-Yawm on July 21 that “the councils of Cairo and Giza are the largest regional councils. The old Cairo council sorted the cases and then gave them to us in two batches, the first including 100 dossiers, and the second 107, in Cairo. These dossiers include some that had rulings issued by the Clerical Council, starting in 2011. The Giza Council only has 54 cases. All are old dossiers, from 2011 onwards.”
In other words, the number of cases the Clerical Council has ruled on since 2011 stood at 261 in Cairo and Giza alone.
Attempts at a Solution
Representatives of the three major Christian communities (Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical) met in 1979 in their first attempt at a solution. They agreed to a unified draft personal status law for non-Muslims.
Journalist Karim Kamal, in her book “Personal Status for Copts”, said that the draft law included a chapter on divorce grounds accepted by the church and connected to Biblical text. It allowed “presumed adultery” as well as “actual adultery”.
The draft law was submitted in 1980 to the president of the People’s Assembly, Dr. Sufi Abu Taleb, but it never saw the light of day after the October 1982 assassination of Anwar Sadat.
In 1998, the three communities again presented an amended version of the 1980 draft law to Saif al-Nasr, then Minister of Justice. This draft which was shelved would have closed the door on switching denominations within the Christian faith in order to get a divorce.
The third attempt came in May 2010, when the three communities wrote a unified draft law for personal status. This came two years after a dispute arose between Pope Shenouda III and the civil court, when the latter ruled to sanction the marriage of a Coptic citizen. As a result, the Pope modified the list of 38 and reduced divorce grounds to actual or presumed adultery, and conversion of denomination or religion. An implicit agreement was reached among the three main churches to stop issuing certificates of denominational change, according to Ramsis al-Najjar.
Deadlock result again after the January 2011 revolution, and in November 2014, when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi urged the Ministry of Transitional Justice to prepare a draft personal status law for non-Muslims.
Expanding Grounds for Divorce
Munsif Suleiman, a member of the Congregational Council and representative of the Catholic Church in the committee preparing the draft law, says that it provides concessions on grounds for annulment. For example, it allow for mental, nervous, or psychological problems, or illness as reasons to seek divorce. Wife-beating was added as a form of psychological abuse as was the husband abandoning the marital home for three consecutive years without the consent of the wife.
Nader Sobhi, founder of the Christian Youth’s Coptic Orthodox Movement, said that the new draft list resolved 99.9 percent of personal status issues for Copts, and is far better than the list of 38, because for the first time it contains an article allowing the marriage of those divorced on ground of repeat adultery, provided they repent.
Social movements founded by people affected by the personal status laws hope to get a law passed allowing civil marriage in isolation from the church. This could resolve thousands of issues involving second marriages, and also help people in limbo who have obtained divorce rulings from civil courts but not churches, or vice versa. It could also end sectarian sedition resulting from these marital problems.
This was the last effort made by those affected by this situation. The Christian Personal Status Victims’ League last June sent a telegraph appealing to President Sisi to enact a civil law for Christians while ensuring no constitutional challenge would ensue, according to Hani Izzat.
This happened after all churches that took part in preparing the draft law, except the Evangelical Church, agreed to reject civil marriage. Today, this is the only in favor of civil marriage in Egypt.
The press officer at the Catholic Church, Father Rafiq Jreish, said the state made an inadvertent mistake when it placed civil marriage under the fifth chapter of the personal status for Christians law, “despite the fact that the state knows churches are opposed to civil marriage.” He said that if the government wanted the law on civil marriages passed, it would have to do it unilaterally.
“But I, as bishop, say during my sermon, ‘People, if you marry in the civil manner you will be moving away from the church and away from God, and your marriage is not blessed.’”
The Orthodox church shares this view. Father Ioannis Kamal, pastor of the Holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel Church in Giza, said the church renounces those in a civil marriage. When they die, he said, “we will not pray for him.” He said that if “the state enacts civil marriage, the church will call on followers to reject it.
Those who have a civil marriage, let the state baptize their children and let the state pray for them when they die.” In a telephone conversation, he said the children were faultless and the church would baptize them even if the parents had a civil marriage.
. Ikram al-Lamii, head of the department of comparative religion at the University of Zagazig, and former head of the Supreme Synod of the Evangelical Church, said: “It is the right of the state to pass civil marriage, and we encourage this because it would solve many marriage and divorce issues.”
Lamii said that implementing civil marriage is a sign of progress in the personal status issue involving Christians. Lamii warned against having a final version of the law that excludes civil marriage. “That would be a disaster, because it abolishes the [clause on] change of denomination, which was an outlet for people. If there is no change of denomination or civil marriage, this will be a disaster for Christian families. Couples would only have one option, to kill each other or change their religion, which creates more problems.”
Tarek Ramadan, legal adviser to the Right to Life Movement, said that if the state passes a civil law it will safeguard national security, because most sectarian tensions are related to Christian personal status issues.
Ramadan also said that civil law can bring solutions to current problems by restoring the grounds of divorce from the 1938 list. This would allow implementing the grounds retroactively, and solve old problems. It would also resolve the problem of second marriages: according to civil law, if divorce is obtained via civil courts, husbands can marry again.
The draft law faces several problems, including non-participation by the Adventists, one of the recognized Christian denominations, which may be grounds to rule it unconstitutional. The Ministry of Transitional Justice invited representatives of the five member churches under the Council of the Churches of Egypt to participate in preparing the draft.
Reverend Rifaat Fikri, head of Media and Publication at the Evangelical Church, said that the discussion included all churches that are members of the Council of the Churches of Egypt, but said that the Seventh-day Adventist denomination is separate. Although the state recognizes them, he said, “I have no explanation for their non-participation in the discussion.”
Father Anwas Iskandar, legal representative of the Adventists, said that the denomination has been recognized by the state since the days of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser. It also has the right to build churches, establish charities, and create schools. “How would the law apply to us when we have not agreed to it and did not take part in drafting it?”
Although the state recognizes the Adventists, the draft law does not consider them Christian, stating that “Christian men may not marry someone in church who belongs to another religion or a non-Christian faith, like Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’is and Mormons.”
Bishop Boula of Tanta and Gharbiya ran the Clerical Council for 26 years and headed the Orthodox Church committee preparing the draft law.
Boula said he saw no reason for waiting for parliament to approve the new draft. “As long as the church has approved the draft, it is possible to implement it at the church level until it comes into force judicially, following the approval of parliament,” he told CBC TV last December.
Last November, he also said on a CTV program that “It doesn’t matter whether the state will approve it. Our previous experience shows that even though the law was going ahead it was not passed by the state”. He also cited the Pope’s abolition of the list of 38, which was in force in civil courts.
Boula’s statements are based on Article 3 of the Constitution, which gives Christians the right to their own laws, but also requires this to be in accordance with laws in force.
In a phone call, Boula confirmed his previous statements, especially those stating the right of the church to implement internally the regulations it sees fit. “In the previous phase, the church was implementing a list that was not in force in the courts. This is its right regardless of whether it is called a list or a draft [law].”
In contrast, writer Karima Kamal argued that the church is not a legislative entity. She says that after abolishing the list of 38, there was chaos in the courts that continues today.
There appears to be no solution in the short term for the thousands of Copts who are victims of marital disputes, even when these increase sectarian tensions and cause loss of life.