Coptic Marriage Law and the Church-State Divide in Egypt
Katherine Kaiser Friday, 17 September 2010
In May 2010, following a series of appeals, the Egyptian Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) handed down a ruling that would force the Coptic Orthodox Church to allow its followers to remarry following divorce. Coptic Pope Shenouda III had refused to recognize the legitimacy of Egyptian Copt Hani Wasfi's divorce and denied him a permit to remarry, so Wasfi had collaborated with Magdi William, a fellow Coptic divorcé, and taken the case to the civil courts.
The ruling and the ensuing public outcry from Coptic clergy have raised fundamental questions about the nature of the Christian minority's rights in Egypt's Muslim-majority society. The debate has conflated the sacred and secular in more complex ways than Egypt has seen in recent memory. The current controversy over Christian marriage law in Egypt underscores the tension between collective and individual notions of religious freedom and offers an opportunity for the state to advance the civil liberties of all Egyptian citizens.
Copts in Egyptian Society
Copts, the shorthand name for members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, have inhabited northern Africa since before the arrival of Islam—they trace their origins to the evangelism of St. Mark in Egypt. They now comprise approximately 10 percent of the Egyptian population, making them the largest Christian population in the Middle East, and occupy all levels of society. While Copts were politically outspoken for most of the 20th century, social relations between Copts and the Muslim majority have been relatively peaceful given the frequency of confessional violence in the broader region.
Despite this relative peace, the SAC's ruling on Coptic marriage came amid unusually heightened tensions between the Muslim majority and Orthodox Christian minority communities in Egypt. Just five months earlier, the quiet Egyptian town of Naga Hamadi was caught in a dispute over the alleged rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian man. The conflict came to a head on Christmas Day (which fell on January 6 according to the Orthodox calendar), when a gunman opened fire on a crowd of Copts departing Christmas services, killing six Christian men and one Muslim.
The Spirit of Intervention
This violent episode hearkens back to the authoritarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1940s and echoes the often-overlooked institutional tensions between the Coptic Church and the Egyptian state. The Muslim Brotherhood "made efforts to restrict Coptic influence and employment and education opportunities, and there were occasional outbreaks of violence and arson." Copts repeatedly found themselves at best without any real input in their government, and at worst outright persecuted.
Around the ascent of Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in 1956, the tenor of church-state relations shifted from marginalization to seemingly good-natured intervention. In 1954, at the request of a local Coptic council (Maglis al-Milli), the government issued a decree calling for the abdication of Patriarch Anba Yusab II, thereby establishing a precedent for state intervention in Coptic ecclesiastical policy. Three years later, after the 1957 National Assembly election failed to produce a single Coptic victor, stability-conscious government officials panicked at the lack of tolerance they imagined the election results would convey. When a new bureaucratic trick of persuading Muslim candidates to withdraw in certain districts failed, Nasser was ultimately forced to "use his presidential prerogative and [appoint] eight or ten Copts among the non-elected members of the Assembly."
This spirit of intervention persists today, and nowhere has it been felt more deeply than in the field of personal status law. This area of the judicial system, which mediates such issues as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, typically falls under the jurisdiction of one's religious codes—shari'a courts for Muslims and biblical regulations enforced by Coptic Church hierarchy for Christians.
In Egypt, marriage in particular exists under both civil and religious authority; it is both sacred and secular at the same time. Egyptian civil marriages are carried out concurrently with religious ceremonies and performed by religious officials; civil marriage, without a religious ceremony, is not recognized as legal. In both the Muslim and Coptic communities, any marriage that is entered under religious authority must be terminated with the permission of that authority. The Coptic Church adheres strictly to an anti-divorce policy rooted in the status of marriage as a sacrament, and divorces are generally only acceptable in circumstances of adultery or one partner's conversion to another faith. In these cases, the divorcing spouse must petition the Pope for approval.
Conflicting Constitutional Claims
The debate surrounding the SAC's latest ruling has been framed in terms of constitutional protections. The Egyptian courts, in response to the outcry from the Coptic Church, argue that the ruling was based on the supremacy of the right to procreate; the state characterized "the right to establish a family" as a "constitutional right ... above all other considerations." Pope Shenouda III, however, has emphasized the Egyptian constitution's protection of other religions: "The church respects the law but it does not accept judgments that go against the Gospels and against religious freedom, which is guaranteed by the constitution." A less sectarian Coptic response questions whether the state should be regulating sacred acts such as marriage in the first place.
In addition to constitutional concerns, church officials also question the judge's application of a Muslim divorce paradigm to the Christian community. According to Islamic law, divorce is the husband's prerogative, and court limitations on this right are minimal and generally procedural. (A woman may also divorce her husband for a variety of reasons, though this occurs less frequently.) Many clergy see the government as a mere instrument of Islamic doctrine, including Bishop Morcos, who said, "I don't blame the judge; he is a Muslim judge ruling in Coptic affairs, about which he most probably knows nothing. What do you expect from him?" Regardless of its reasoning, the Coptic ecclesiastical community has explicitly characterized the SAC's decision as an undue infringement upon the Church's sovereignty over its followers. It is widely decried as an outright violation of religious freedom for Egyptian Orthodox Christians.
The Future of Religious Freedom and Civil Liberties
Since the ruling, new developments have revealed that the church's public outcry may have weakened the state's resolve. On June 14, the Justice Ministry announced that it would convene a working group to draft a new law on marriage and divorce for Egypt's religious minorities. The working group could take over a month to compose a draft, and then the bill must be passed through the Assembly. Institutional obstacles to the new bill abound, but it represents an acknowledgment on the part of the Muslim government that legal revision may be necessary to guarantee religious freedom; according to Justice Minister Mahmoud Marei, "The [new] law is to ensure everyone's right to worship God according to their own set of rules."
As of this writing, the nature and structure of the new law are unknown, and the notion of religious freedom, or the "right to worship God according to [one's] own set of rules" is even more nebulous. The SAC's original justification for its ruling—that all Egyptians have the right to bear children—likely indicates a bias toward Muslim values rather than a reverence for religious freedom for minority Copts. Indeed, up until the announcement of the new working group, the state had avoided any mention of freedom of religious expression for minorities in Egypt.
Given the tenor of the current debate, there are two distinct possible outcomes of the working group: more freedom for the church, or more freedom for the Egyptian. The former outcome would reverse the Wasfi ruling, thereby handing the power of discretionary authorization of divorce back to the clergy and maintaining a group-based religious freedom. The latter, however, would require a re-imagining of the nature of individual rights in Egyptian society. Currently, all Egyptians are required to carry official identification cards, on which they must list their religion. Until an SAC ruling in 2009, which allowed members of the Egyptian Baha'i community to list a "—" in this category, the only choices for religion were Muslim, Christian, and Jew (not "None of the Above"). That an Egyptian citizen could operate outside a faith structure is simply inconceivable; the right to freedom of religion has heretofore been granted primarily to communities and only to individuals insofar as their community allows.
The most radical outcome of the working group would be the introduction of purely civil marriages; that is, marriages that do not require a religious official's signature to be considered legal. Some critics of the government are calling for such a move to allow those individuals who wish to conduct their marriages outside a religious community to do so. This notion faces heavy opposition from opponents of inter-religious marriage, however, not to mention religious officials like Pope Shenouda III who view marriage and religion as inseparable.
If the government's new bill contradicts or overturns the SAC's recent ruling, then the controversy over marriage rights and church-state relations will have been for naught. If, however, the ruling is upheld, it would be only the first step in a series of procedural and ideological changes required to secure Egyptian citizens' civil liberties. As yet the rights that religious minority peoples enjoy are those that the state has given minority leaders the power to bestow. Not until the Egyptian state can offer protections to individuals to worship as they choose, whether they operate inside or outside an official religious community, will individual liberty thrive.
 Fred De Sam Lazaro, "Egypt's Coptic Tensions," Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, 26 February 2010, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/february-26-2010/egypts-coptic-tensions/5786/ (accessed 29 June 2010).
 "Egypt Church Urges Review of Remarriage Ruling,"AFP, 8 June 2010, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5h9eB4rsUuV0gQHd-ahG3nxLZUELQ (accessed 17 June 2010).
 De Sam Lazaro, "Egypt's Coptic Tensions."
 Kristen Chick, "In Egypt, Christians Celebrate Easter Sunday under Shadow of Christmas Attacks," Christian Science Monitor, 2 April 2010, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2010/0402/In-Egypt-Christians-celebrate-Easter-Sunday-under-shadow-of-Christmas-attacks (accessed 12 July 2010).
 Ibid., 161.
 Ibid., 163.
 Ibid., 164.
 "Egypt Church Urges Review."
 Charlie Rosenberg, "Egypt and USA: A Contrast in Separation of Church of State," The Examiner, 13 June 2010, http://www.examiner.com/x-52571-Science-Religion--Politics-Examiner~y2010m6d13-Egypt-and-USA-A-Contrast-In-Separation-of-Church-and-State (accessed 29 June 2010).
 "Egypt Church Urges Review."
 Adel Guindy, "Family Status Issues Among Egypt's Copts: A Brief Overview," The Middle East Review of International Affairs 11, no. 3 (September 2007): 3, http://meria.idc.ac.il/journal/2007/issue3/1.pdf (accessed 29 June 2010).
 Leila, "Church and State."
 "After Criticism from Coptic Church, Egypt Drafting New Law on Remarriage for Minority Copts," Associated Press, 14 June 2010.
 Guindy, "Family Status Issues," 6.