24 July 2011
Coptic demonstrations calling for easier divorce and remarriage prompt the announcement…
Some 150 Coptic protestors demonstrated last Monday at the grounds of St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral and papal headquarters in Cairo, demanding more lenient measures for divorce and remarriage. The demonstration was held in front of the office of the Clerical Council, the body in charge of issuing divorce and remarriage permits for Coptic Orthodox men and women, with the protestors demanding that their cases be speedily resolved. Some of the divorce or remarriage cases, they claimed, have lain before the council for years without any decision taken.
News circulated that demonstrators had attempted to assault Anba Pola, Bishop of Tanta and head of the Clerical Council, after members of the security force of the Cathedral treated one of them roughly. Anba Pola remained indoors.
“We will hold a sit-in in front of the council, and we will not allow the bishop to go out until he resolves our cases and puts an end to our suffering,” Mina Saad, one of the demonstrators noted. “Anba Pola insists on stubbornly standing against us. He practises flagrant favouritism; some couples are treated well and get their divorce and remarriage permits speedily, while others are treated abominably and have to wait for years for their cases to be resolved.”
The demonstrators demanded that Pope Shenouda III should dismiss Anba Pola “who treats us with arrogance and disdain, as though we were criminals”. They demanded that the Coptic Church should make divorce and remarriage easier. The Church currently restricts divorce to two reasons: adultery or conversion. “We will not be forced into conversion simply to end tortuous marriages. We insist that the Church should grant us divorce while we remain in our Christian faith.”
They also demanded from the State a civil law for marriage and divorce.
As the demonstrators turned more violent and attempted to break into the building, the security officials at the Cathedral decided to keep them at bay by using a guard dog. But this terrorised the demonstrators. The police intervened, and the dog was taken away.
In the evening, the protestors decided to temporarily suspend their sit-in. Anba Pola and other priests who had been in the building with him left through a back door. Amir Mounir one of the protesters, said the decision was taken in order to give the Church an opportunity to reconsider.
On Monday evening, viewers of CTV heard Anba Pola, who was contacted by the channel, comment on the day’s events. “What happened today crossed the boundaries of legitimacy,” he said. He insisted the Church never fell short of resolving the cases pending in the Clerical Council. The legal procedures, however, stipulate that couples obtain divorce from the civil courts first, then the case is independently viewed by the clerical council. The council may or may not grant a church divorce and, in case it does, it issues a remarriage permit only to the wronged party.
Even though a civil divorce is prerequisite for a church divorce, it in no way secures the latter.
“All Copts are treated equally by the Clerical Council,” Anba Pola stressed, “In some instances the council moves to begin seeing their cases even before the court grants them divorce, just to save time.”
Some Copts, he said, consider that the civil divorce automatically leads to a church divorce, and are disappointed to find out this is far from the truth. The Church cannot go against the Bible, he said. The passage of a unified family law for Christians, according to Anba Pola, would solve this predicament between the Church and the courts which would then judge according to the same rules.
When asked about the security clashes with the demonstrators that morning, Anba Pola said he never called the police, but had received a phone call from a police officer to find out what was happening.
Statement by the Church
On Tuesday morning the Coptic Orthodox Church issued an official statement in which it announced that: “The Church cannot, under any pressure or circumstances, go against the legislation instated by the Bible teachings.”
The statement, signed by Fr Rweiss Eweida, Secretary of the Clerical Council, declared that the council respects the freedom of expression practised by the Egyptian people since the January Revolution. This, the statement said, includes the right to demonstrate, as long as it is conducted within the limits of respecting religious and public values as well as preserving public property.
It was denied that any assault had occurred whether against a church official or a demonstrator.
The statement explained that it is no legislating authority, but is merely an executive authority that applies what the Bible stipulates.
When cases lag on in the Clerical Council, the statement said, it is mostly because one party is not able to prove its claim against the other, or displays deviant behaviour. The statement also confirmed that the council cannot issue any divorce ruling unless a divorce had already been granted by the civil court.