Family law for Christians under scrutiny

16-11-2014 01:15 AM

Nader Shukry


Egypt’s Constitution stipulates in its third article that Christians and Jews are entitled to Family laws based on their own respective doctrines. The Ministry of Transitional Justice has thus sent to the major Churches in Egypt a draft family law to study and comment on before 26 November.

The draft draws on an earlier bill for a unified family law for Christians jointly presented by the Churches to former justice ministers some 34 years ago, but repeatedly ignored by successive governments. The new draft law, however, includes an article which allows Christians the option of civil divorce and remarriage which does not have to be recognised by the Church. It is not yet clear whether or not the Orthodox, Catholic, or Evangelical Churches in Egypt will approve or reject this article, or perhaps modify it.

All three Churches have said they formed specialised committees to study the new draft.


In Egypt, where marriage is generally seen within a religious perspective, civil marriage is currently only an option in case of Egyptians who marry foreigners. Egyptians who marry Egyptian partners have to get married through their religious institutions then have the marriage contract ratified in court. This means that in case of Christians the rules for marriage and divorce have to be placed by the Church. In 1938, however, following a movement by the laity to have a say in their relation with the Church, the Coptic Orthodox Melli (Community) Council drafted what came to be known as the 1938 bylaws which acted as a family law for Christians and was adopted by the State in 1955 for courts of law to rule accordingly in case a Coptic Orthodox couple filed for divorce. If the partners each belonged to a different sect, however, the court would rule according to Islamic ++sharia++ (Islamic law). The 1938 bylaws stipulated lenient causes for divorce and were thus never recognised by the Church which insisted it would never deviate from the Bible’s teachings that the sole cause for divorce was adultery. The problem then for couples who obtained divorce by court rulings was that they could not remarry; the Church did not recognise their divorce in the first place so remarriage would be tantamount to bigamy. And the Egyptian law allowed for no option of any marriage outside the Church. The only way out was for the person who wished to remarry to convert to Islam and marry under Islamic ++sharia++.

The double system created countless problems, so all the Church leaders met in 1980 and decided on a unified family law which they handed to the justice ministry. Even though that draft law adhered to the principle that the only cause for divorce is adultery, it gave a broader definition for adultery. But this did not solve the problems of many Christians who wished to end a marriage for reasons other than adultery. In all cases, the 1980 draft law never saw light; successive governments froze the issue. Now the new draft law awaits scrutiny by the Churches for their say on it.


Watani International

15 November 2014

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