Is it credible that the personal status act for Christians in Egypt—whatever its importance—has taken more than 30 years of study, left on the shelf?
The recent Administrative Court ruling that compelled the Coptic Orthodox Church to allow the remarriage of Copts who had been divorced in the civil courts underscored the urgent need to unfreeze the pending law, in order to avoid any conflict between court rulings and Christian teaching.
Against the Bible
Since 1955 Egyptian courts have applied the personal status law taken after a personal status code issued by the Coptic Orthodox Melli (Community) Council, composed of laymen, in 1938. The code, which stipulated several reasons for divorce, was issued at a time widely regarded as an era of weakness in the Coptic Church which nevertheless consistently opposed the code on grounds that it went against the teachings of the Bible. The renaissance of the Coptic Church began in 1959 at the hands of Pope Kyrillos VI who, in October 1962, demanded the amendment of the 1938 code. In 1971 Pope Shenouda III issued a papal decree denying remarriage permits for couples who divorced through the civil courts, unless the divorce was based on adultery.
And as though the 1938 code was not lenient enough, Christian couples who sought a quick divorce had the option of filing for divorce according to Islamic sharia where a man may single-handedly divorce his wife for any reason. All it took was for one of the spouses to change his or her sect and the man to declare his wish for divorce and take the matter to court. Since the couple would then be belonging to two different sects, and there being no unified law for Christians, the court would then apply Islamic sharia and divorce would be instantly granted.
In 1978 Christian leaders met together and proposed an act unifying the personal status law for Christians. All the heads of the various Churches in Egypt signed the act. In 1980 the act was presented to the Justice Ministry for consequent presentation to Parliament to pass into a law. No move whatsoever was taken in that direction however and when, in 1998, Pope Shenouda III drew the attention of then Justice Minister Farouq Seif al-Nasr, the latter asked for the act to be again officially presented to the ministry, which the Church accordingly did. Yet again the act was shelved.
Georgette Qellini, a member of both Parliament and Melli Council, told Watani that the act included 146 items on the personal status of all sects regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption, and suchlike. The legal items were divided into five categories; the first concerning marriage and its conditions, contract and annulment; the second financial matters, the third rights and obligations of children towards their parents and vice versa; the fourth chapter proving paternity and adoption; while the fifth undertook marriage annulment.
Since no explanation was ever given for shelving the law for so long, conjecture reigns. A rumour—given the fact that, according to Dr Qellini, the draft law had been referred to al-Azhar for comment—is circulating that the government does not wish to go into matters of inheritance or adoption, concerning which Christianity and Islam hold different views. In Islam a man inherits double the share of a woman, a matter Christians do not uphold; and Islam does not condone adoption while Christianity has nothing against it and merely regulates the process.
Pillar to post
In an attempt to get to the bottom of the matter Watani headed to the Justice Ministry but ministry spokesman Osama Atawiya said he had no information on that head. Watani then approached public relations manager Hamdi Mehanna who said there was no such act or draft law in the first place. When Watani reporter explained that the paper would inform its readers accordingly, Mr Mehanna said that maybe Watani should be talking to someone from the legalisation department at the ministry. Serri Syam, head of legalisation department and a consultant to the justice minister, said the draft law did exist but was taking time to study. When Watani asked if 30 years were not enough time, Mr Syam said the department had its agenda of priorities, and that this act was of a particularly sensitive nature.