Coptic Christians Threaten to Leave Denomination Over Divorce, Remarriage Laws

A group of Egyptian Copts is protesting the country’s Coptic Orthodox Church for its refusal to change current divorce and marriage laws and are declaring its intent to leave the denomination.

On Thursday, the four-month-old Coptic group "Right to Live" organized a protest outside Cairo’s Justice Ministry, demanding that Copts be given the right to divorce and remarry, the Al Masry Al Youm newspaper reported.

Unlike in the United States, where local governments carry out the legal divorce process, the Coptic Orthodox Church has Egypt's approval to enforce its marriage and divorce standards as law.

There is no civil marriage in Egypt, so marriages get registered with the government through a priest. In order to get a divorce, couples must go through the church first. If the church refuses, a couple can turn to the civil courts, but are often deferred back to the church.

Where there is a difference in denominations or sects, Egyptian law states that Islamic Sharia applies, and the right to divorce is granted.

Followers of the Coptic Orthodox Church are estimated at about 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million people. Centered in Egypt, the denomination is one of the oldest in the world.

While Egypt's Muslim majority has grown over the past three decades, so has its Christian minority, resulting in many Copts looking to their church as a refuge. The authority of Coptic leader Pope Shenouda III often goes unquestioned.

During the protest, the group of Copts added their names to a list declaring their withdrawal from the Coptic Church, the first of its kind in the denomination’s history. It is reported that 29 people signed the list, which is also being distributed online, during the protest.

Since being named to the Coptic Orthodox Papacy in 1971, Shenouda has restricted divorce to cases of adultery or conversion to another religion or to a different Christian sect. His ruling amended a 1938 bylaw that permitted Copts to divorce on the grounds of impotence, abandonment, abuse, and mental disability.

Since Shenouda’s amendment, Copts seeking a divorce, but who are in marriages where adultery is not a factor, have been known to fabricate an adultery claim or convert.

Rasha Sadeq, who is a Right to Live member, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that the Justice Ministry has not responded to the demands of the movement’s protesters since they were lodged in July.

The demands include the right to a civil marriage in a registry office for those already divorced, without the need to acquire permission from the church, and the right to divorce through a notary if both parties agree, according to the news report.

The group also signed a document addressed to Shenouda, in which they declare that the church’s strictures – particularly with regard to divorce and remarriage – no longer apply to them.

Protesters have emphasized that leaving the Orthodox Church does not mean leaving the Christian faith, reported Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Osama Farag, who is a protester seeking the right to a divorce, described himself as an “Egyptian Christian with no sect,” according to the news report.

“If the Church won’t let me divorce, I have no choice but to try for a civil divorce and marriage,” said Sameh Abdel Malak, adding that he is being denied a divorce despite his wife allegedly committing adultery.

“I know the papers might be wrong [in the view of the Church], but what matters is that things will be right between me and God,” Abdel Malak said.