Coptic church proposes law to allow divorce in cases of desertion

The Coptic Orthodox Church has proposed new draft provisions for the laws governing marriage and divorce for Copts.

Currently Copts can only file for divorce in cases of adultery, but the church has proposed a new condition by which spouses can divorce if one partner deserts the other for more than five years.

Over 100 clerics met for a seminar in Wadi al-Natrun from February 28 to March 2, during which the new legislation was discussed.

If passed by parliament, the new laws will permit the courts to determine divorce decisions for Copts, but will not automatically guarantee that permission will be given for a second marriage by the church, secretary of the church’s Holy Synod Bishop Rafael said in a telephone interview with the church-owned ME Sat on Friday.

“The court can divorce any couple, but courts do not have the right to force the church to permit a second marriage. The constitution grants us this right,” Rafael added, referring to article three, which stipulates: “The principles of Christianity and Judaism are the main source of regulation for personal statuses, religious affairs and the selection of spiritual leaders.”

At the seminar were a wide range of clerics, according to Rafael — those who take a strong position vis a vis the implementation of orthodox teachings on divorce and those who feel the pain of thousands of Copts suffering under restrictive laws.

However, the founder of the Scream Association for Personal Status, Ishaq Francis, is skeptical that the proposed legislation will change anything. “Do you think the church will, all of the sudden, solve the problems of divorce and marriage for Copts?”

Francis explains it’s very difficult to prove desertion. “What if this partner attends the court session, or has a known address? Can we call this desertion? I doubt it,” he says.

Researcher in religious freedoms at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) Ishaq Ibrahim agrees, maintaining the new provisions will only facilitate technical details concerning marriage and divorce for Copts.

The suggested legislation also widens the scope for evidence of adultery to include phone calls and text messages, and will decentralize the decision making process for second marriages, giving more power to local clerical councils and bishops, according to Ibrahim.

“However, the core problem still persists. The church is the supreme entity holding the power over second marriage permissions, without any monitoring [from state bodies]. The new amendments do not solve this problem,” he explained, proposing, “A parallel solution is to issue a law that allows a secular civil marriage.”

Founder of Copts 38, Nader al-Serafy, however, believes the new amendments offer working solutions for existing issues. Copts 38 have long advocated for activating 1938 church bylaws that offered more flexible conditions for divorce and second marriages for Copts.

Serafy says the new amendments are based on recommendations sent from the group to the church. “The problem was never about second marriages or the church, he says, it was always about divorce,” But Francis disagrees, arguing, “It has been always about the church’s hardline position and rejection of civil marriages.”


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