Over the past few weeks the Higher Civil Court surprised Egypt’s Copts twice. The first surprise was in the court ruling obliging the Ministry of Interior to change the official papers, including national ID cards, for those who had re-converted to Christianity after a short-lived conversion to Islam.
The court ruled that government agencies had to state the current religious status of all citizens, regardless of any previous religious convictions.
The second surprise was another court ruling obliging the Church, not the government this time, to allow the remarriage of divorcees, insisting that those who obtained a civil divorce from the court must have recourse to a second marriage through the Church.
But while the Coptic Orthodox Church’s top clergymen welcomed the first ruling, they angrily dismissed the second. During his Wednesday weekly sermon, Pope Shenouda responded to the Higher Civil Court’s ruling, which gives divorced Christians the legal right to remarry, stating unequivocally that he would not allow legally divorced Christians to remarry.
This statement is not new. The Pope himself made it several times before and top church officials repeated it on various occasions.
According to the current Church view on marriage, the license to remarry is granted in only one of three cases: adultery, conversion to another creed, and if it is proven that the first marriage was invalid to begin with.
In all cases the “innocent party is the only one given the right to remarry.
For example, the wife of an adulterous man has the right to remarry in Church after her marriage has been annulled, while the husband does not, and vice versa. Yet the court doesn’t exclusively abide by these rules, adding more cases where divorce can be obtained, which the Church regards as summarily unacceptable.
Analytically, both verdicts stem from a purely civil perspective. In this case, it is the Church that is being duplicitous, not the state: while it hails the first ruling as a triumph for the “civil state , it denounces the second because it is informed by the sharia, hence making its position contradictory.
The civil state (the bedrock of enlightenment thinking) should not have double standards. Christians have to decide whether they want to be treated as equal citizens in a civil state, or as second-class citizens in a religious state. It is unacceptable to swing from “civil law to “religious law only to maintain a privileged position.
If we apply Islamic law, the Church will definitely have complete control over its right to approve or disapprove second marriages. Islam clearly states that the People of the Book (the Bible) will be free apply their own religious rules and rituals in their private affairs.
The Church would definitely win this battle. All Christian denominations use this Islamic tenet, particularly to push forth the draft personal status law for Christians. Although they submitted the draft twice over the past 20 years, the government has not responded to it.
Not surprisingly, Islamists who always criticize the public activities of Pope Shenouda, remained silent this time, and some of them sent embedded massages to Copts along the lines of: “Islam is the solution for Copts too, while secularization would exclusively undermine Church presence, according to Dr Rafik Habib, a Coptic intellectual close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Resorting to Islamic law when it comes to personal status affairs is seen as a triumph for the Church on the one hand, yet sharia is seen as a real threat for Copts when it comes to issue of conversion on the other.
Muslims have no right to convert to other religions and those who convert to Islam also have no right to return to their original faith. All Islamic scholars consider conversion from Islam as “apostasy but they differ on whether this “crime should be punishable by death.
Scholars portrayed as liberal thinkers such as Sheikh Shaltoot, regarded apostasy as a crime, but not one deserving the death penalty, while other scholars who base their views on extremist interpretations believe it is.
If the Pope and clergy accept Islamic law, this means that some rights will be given to them because of their submission to sharia, while they will be deprived of other rights for the same reason.
A civil state gives Christians religious freedom, but it will force them to comply with a civic code of laws when it comes to personal status affairs.
Islamic law will give Christians dominance over their internal religious and personal affairs, but without granting them full equity or absolute religious freedom.
The question is, to what extent is the Church clergy aware of that?
Sameh Fawzy is an Egyptian journalist, PhD researcher, and specialist in governance and citizenship.