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Coptic divorcee Hani Wasfi has raised a lawsuit against the Coptic Church’s refusal to allow him to remarry. Wasfi won a court ruling earlier from a lower court, which the church appealed but lost last week.
Wasfi’s case isn't the first of its kind, but it does represent the first time for a court to rule against church doctrine. The move has led to heated debate among the Coptic community and Egyptian society at large.
An administrative court last month ruled that the Coptic Church should allow its divorced followers to remarry.
“By law, a Coptic Christian can remarry; the constitution guarantees his right to have a (new) family,” Egypt’s High Administrative Court explained in its ruling. "The appeal by Pope Shenuda III to prevent Copts from remarrying is rejected."
In response, Shenouda, at a press conference yesterday at the papal residence, stressed "the Coptic Church's respect for Egyptian law," but added that the church "doesn’t accept rules that contravene biblical teachings and violate our freedom of religion, which is guaranteed by law."
The Coptic Church does not allow divorces except in cases of adultery or if one of the spouses converts to another religion or Christian denomination.
Rights activists attribute the confusion to the absence of civil marriage in Egypt. “The government provides the solution with civil marriage,” said lawyer Adel Ramadan of the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “But we cannot force the pope to change his beliefs.”
Members of Egypt's small Baha’i community face similar marital problems, as the government does not officially recognize their marriages because Islamic Law does not recognize it. Thus, said Ramadan, "the only way out is civil marriage.”
Many religious figures, however, disapprove civil marriage, saying it can open the door to a number of social pitfalls.
“Civil marriage is a disaster," said Father Rafic Greiche, press director for the Greek Catholic Church in Egypt. "It's worse than ‘urfi marriage.”
‘Urfi marriage is a kind of Muslim marriage performed in the absence of an official contract, which is becoming increasingly common, especially among college students. Usually a document, stating that the two are married, is written and signed by two witnesses.
On the Egyptian street, opinions on the issue of Coptic divorce and remarriage vary widely.
Most Copts don't want anyone to interfere in the application of their religious rules.
“I don’t see how the court has anything to do with this,” said 43-year-old Coptic accountant Marzouk Mahfouz. "These are God’s orders, and we accept them."
Others, however, express support for government intervention in the matter.
“I have been seeking a divorce for three years, yet nothing is happening and my life is a mess,” said 37-year-old Coptic sales representative Samah Ghali. “I don't object to the government interfering in the issue."
But Shenouda says that any Copt that goes to court seeking a divorce or second marriage without the church’s approval will ultimately be frustrated. “He would then come to me and say, 'remarry me,' and I would say, 'no way, I have nothing to do with you,'” the pope said at yesterday's press conference.
“Whoever wants to abandon biblical teachings, let him do so," said Shenouda. "We'll see where this will take him."