Coptic protesters call for a relaxation of divorce regulations

A group of Egyptian Copts protested in Cairo on Thursday, demanding the annulment of Church-sanctioned divorce regulations, and calling instead for civil marriage legislation.

“None of us are calling for something that will hurt others. We are simply demanding the right to marry and have families,” said Mariam al-Naggar, one of the 20 protesters who gathered on the steps of the Justice Ministry in response to a call from a Facebook group lobbying for a civil personal status law for Christians.

Since his ascendance to the Coptic Orthodox Papacy in 1971, Shenouda III has restricuted divorce to cases of adultery or  conversion to another religion or to a different Christian sect, amending a 1938 bylaw that permitted Copts to divorce on the grounds of impotence, abandonment, abuse, and mental disability.

As a result, Christians in unhappy marriages who wish to divorce but in which adultery is not a factor face a stark choice: either fabricate an adultery claim or convert.

Protestor Andrew Ayman explained that making a false claim of adultery involves producing “witnesses” who must falsely testify that they have caught one of the spouses in an act of betrayal.

Demonstrators also warned that restrictions on divorce can lead to sectarian strife, citing several cases of Coptic Orthodox women whose alleged or actual conversions to Islam have sparked serious sectarian clashes. The most recent such case took place in Cairo’s Imbaba district in May, resulting in the deaths of 15 people.

The Orthodox Church claimed in 2010 that Egyptian courts had been reviewing around 4,000 cases of Copts seeking to divorce, while an independent study said that up to 160,000 were under review as of 2000.

Introducing a civil marriage law could be a more challenging endeavor in post-Mubarak Egypt, where many political forces, even including some Islamist groups, have endorsed a long-standing demand from the Coptic Orthodox Church that Article 2 of the Constitution should be amended, allowing non-Muslims to be governed according to their own religious laws.

Protestors on Thursday emphasized that their campaign is not an attack on the Coptic Orthodox Church – despite several searingly condemnatory chants against the Pope and bishops.

Ayman said that he just wants the Church to “stop interfering in all aspects” of Orthodox Christians’ lives, and for it to not involve itself in law-making.

Loosening up the Church-sanctioned remarriage procedures by returning to the 1938 bylaws could be a compromise for all conflicting parties, said some protesters.

Pope Kirollos, Shenouda’s predecessor, according to Mansour Khalil, “applied the original 1938 statute, and he wasn’t an infidel.”

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