Controversy over civil marriage for Copts in Egypt

17-01-2016 10:51 PM

Nader Shukry

The Heliopolis Family Court has issued a ruling that the only valid marriage of two Christians is that conducted through the Church. In its ruling the court said that any marriage contract between Copts not conducted through Church rites and registered through the Church notary is not legally valid.

Lawyer Ramsis al-Naggar told Watani that the recent ruling contradicts the one issued on 18 November 2015, which authenticated a urfi (unofficial) marriage of two Copts. He says that the last ruling leads to the invalidity of any urfi contract, even though the urfi contract works to prove that a relation existing between a man and a woman is not legally wrong, and preserves the rights of children born out of that relation.

The 18 November 2015 ruling, also issued by the Heliopolis Family Court, which authenticated a non-official urfi marriage contract between two Egyptian Christians, aroused heated controversy. The media circulated the news as an unprecedented move by the Family Court to perform a civil marriage between two Christians. Given that Egyptian law allows civil marriage only in case one or both partners are non-Egyptian, and that many liberal voices have been demanding the same right for Egyptians, the recent news went viral.

Watani took the matter to Said Abdel-Massih, the lawyer who oversaw the writing of the unofficial marriage contract. “I helped my clients, who were both divorced and could not get remarriage permits from the Coptic Orthodox Church, write the unofficial marriage contract,” Mr Abdel-Massih told Watani. “They had to resort to this procedure, since there was no other way for them to get married, and the woman was already expecting a baby,” he explained.
Mr Abdel-Massih pointed out that his clients then filed a lawsuit with the Family Court demanding authentication of the unofficial contract. “I helped them register the court ruling with the Civil Register. News spread that the Family Court had ratified a civil marriage for them, and this prompted heated public controversy,” he said.

“I have paid a heavy price for my involvement in this case,” Mr Abdel-Massih said. “I have been harshly criticised and even insulted, especially by those who believe church marriage as the only valid marriage for Christians.” But he is unrepentant. “Some solution had to be found for the predicament of this couple,” he said.

Rights activists have been demanding that Egyptian law be changed to allow civil marriage since, in many cases, the terms of religious marriage and the intricacies of the religious teachings are found to be overly confining. In several instances, Coptic Orthodox Church leaders have said that the Church only recognises marriages performed in the Church, according to the teachings of the Bible. If couples wish to be marry or divorce according to civil contracts they may do so, but the Church cannot recognise these contracts. In other words, civil and Church contracts should go separate, parallel ways; the two systems cannot mix. But, according to Anba Danial, Bishop of Maadi and the figure in charge of the Clerical Council which handles the family affairs of Copts, children of civil marriages will be accepted in and baptised by the Church if their parents wish.

Watani International
17 January 2016

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