During Pope Tawadros II's weekly sermon, a man from the congregation shouted: “I want my rights, I want to get married!” This outburst prompted other people to shout similar demands, leading the pope to end his sermon early and leave the hall for the first time in the history of the church.
This small scene shed light on a chronic problem suffered by thousands of Egyptian Coptic Christians seeking permission from the church to marry again. It has been a problem since 1971 when Pope Shenouda III abolished the 1938 bylaws that had only allowed divorce for reasons of madness, immigration, aversion, the impossibility of living together, the imprisonment of a spouse, adultery and change of religion.
The courts have ordered civil divorces, but the church has neither implemented them, nor granted civil divorce permits for a second marriage.
In response to lawsuits filed against Pope Shenouda, the Supreme Administrative Court had in 2010 compelled the church to grant permits for second marriages, which put the church in a difficult position, as refusing to implement them meant it was above law. In the end, the Constitutional Court overruled the verdict and kept the status quo.
Last year, the Justice Ministry came up with a proposal for the personal status of Coptic Christians that included a draft law for civil marriages, which was categorically rejected by the church. The proposal is still being studied by the Legislative Reform Commission for the next parliament to approve.
Pope Tawadros says there are no more than 1,500 applicants for a second marriage, while Bishop Paul of Tanta says there are 4,000 and The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights says they are no less than 10,000 people requesting this right.
“We are talking about 250,000,” said Hany Ezzat, coordinator of the Victims of Personal Status Association. “Some had to fabricate adultery or kill their spouses to get divorced or marry again.”
“The church treats us as if we are a state within the state,” he said. “We are Egyptian citizens who appeal to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to help us make families.”
Ezzat said he formed the association after he obtained a court order for divorce in 2002 but was not granted permission from the church to marry again. “Bishop Paul granted permissions before to rich Copts and to relatives of priests and bishops,” he said.
“Some change denomination to get a divorce,” he said. “There is a high priest of a different Orthodox church in Alexandria who grants permissions for second marriages for LE30,000.”
The church: We will not violate the Bible
Father Salib Matta Sawiris, member of the Coptic Orthodox Milli Council, said marriage is one of the seven church secrets. “The Bible says that what God hath joined together, let no man put asunder,” he said. “And Christ said in the three Gospels of the New Testament that there is no divorce except in cases of adultery.”
“Adultery for us includes sending messages, sleeping at someone else’s place or even going together to the movies,” he said.
“Personal status problems have arisen because people have distanced themselves from the church,” he said. “The previous generations were more linked to the church and attended masses. There were fewer family problems.”
Sawiris said the church may annul a marriage if a spouse hides an illness, lies about having been married before or is sexually impotent. “Annulment is not divorce,” he said. “The church gives permission to marry, not to divorce.”
Edited translation from Al-Masry Al-Youm