Pope Tawadros II talks to Watani ..New laws, new perspectives

12-01-2015 01:01 AM

Victor Salama

It has been little over two years since Pope Tawadros II was enthroned in November 2012 as Patriarch of the See of St Mark and Pope of Alexandria. That was a time of political turmoil in Egypt, during which Egyptians struggled to free themselves from the stranglehold of the Muslim Brotherhood Islamist rule that had come to power in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011. In July 2013, Egypt finally rid herself of the Islamists and went on to establish a secular State, institute a new Constitution in January 2014, and elect the moderate Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as president in May 2014. With the election of a new parliament scheduled for next March, the country would be all set for a progressive, democratic future. All along, Copts have been part and parcel of the national movement and have proved themselves active contributors to every aspect of Egyptian public life. The new Constitution honours freedom of belief and the right to freely practice religious rites, and in its third article fully acknowledges the right of Christians and Jews to family laws that respect their faith and doctrines, and to the free choice of their own religious leaders.

The need to build churches
Christians in Egypt can finally look forward to three laws they badly need. First, they need a law that would justly legalise the building of churches and put an end to the agony and humiliation they have been subjected to for centuries on end whenever they needed licence to build a church, that is if they got one at all. The all-too-predictable result of the absence of such legislation is that, with the huge population growth Egypt has been seeing since the 20th century, Copts have had to resort to building churches without licence. This places them under threat of overnight closure if the relevant authorities decide to do so. Worse, under the pretext that they are built outside the law, churches have repeatedly been the targets of violent attacks by extremist Muslims. It is an open secret that non-licensed churches have been used as a lame excuse to target Copts, to the point that in rural Egypt a Copt may be mobbed for building a house, and that house destroyed and burned, because the local Muslims think it might be used as a future church. To say nothing of the constant feeling by Copts that they have to cheat the community if they need to worship, and that prayer has become a confrontational activity.

Electing new popes
Coptic Orthodox Christians also need a new law to govern the election of a new pope when the need arises. The current Patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, was elected according to bylaws drawn in 1957; these need to be brought in line with modern variables. Most notably there is a need to widen the electoral base—a Coptic pope is elected not only by the clergy but also by a representative electorate from among the public—and to remove certain ambiguities concerning the qualifications of candidates for the papacy. There is also a need to include non-Egyptian clergy among the electorate since the 1957 bylaws gave voting rights to Egyptians alone. The bylaws had been drawn before the Coptic Church expanded so widely throughout the globe. At the time, the Church included only Egyptian clergy; now there is a number of non-Egyptians who should be entitled to voting rights.

Family law predicament
The law Copts badly need, however, is a family law. All legislation governing family matters of Egyptians—Muslims and Christians—is based on religious doctrines, and marriage and divorce can only be conducted by the religious institution. The law does not allow civil marriage or divorce between Egyptian couples; it only allows civil marriage if one or both of the partners is non-Egyptian.
Muslims do not have a problem with the current family law since, being the majority religion, legislation is based on Sunni Islam. But it is different with Christians, since their family affairs are governed by both the Church and the State. Self-evidently, there ought to exist a congruency between the regulations used by each in order to avoid non-solvable situations. Marriage is conducted in the Church, then the contract ratified by the Civil Register, so no problem can arise on that score. Not so in the case of termination of a marriage. Divorce is determined separately by the Church and the court of law, and can only go into force if both rulings are in agreement. A couple divorced by court ruling but not by the Church are still man-and-wife in the eyes of the Church, meaning neither can remarry. And again, if divorced by the Church but not in court, none of them can remarry since that would be bigamy which is not allowed in case of Christians.
Some couples have found a breakthrough by resorting to changing their sect, upon which the court considers them to be of different religions and automatically rules according to Islamic sharia, thus granting them a divorce. The person who moved into a different sect may then marry again according to the new sect. In extreme cases, a partner may convert to Islam to end a marriage and remarry.

Conflicting rulings
As matters stand today, the Church allows divorce only in case of adultery, and allows marriage annulment in case the union was based on any sort of deception. The court rules according to what is famously known as the 1938 Bylaws, a set of rules for the termination of Christian marriages drawn in 1938 by the Coptic Orthodox lay Community Council (al-Maglis al-Melli) at a time when the Council was in constant dispute with the Church leadership. The bylaws violated the Church principle that only the Holy Synod is charged with legislation, and stipulated lenient measures for divorce whereas the Church insisted that adultery was the only valid reason for divorce. Subsequent popes since 1938 have sent legal memorandums to the government protesting against the situation and requiring a new family law, but governments never responded. In 1971, all the Church leaders in Egypt gathered together and jointly drew up a draft for a unified family law which they presented more than once to subsequent justice ministers, but the draft was constantly shelved and the problems associated with Christian families remained unresolved.
To sum the matter up, Christians in Egypt need a family law that would be sympathetic to the needs of couples seeking to end their marriages, and that would be fully recognised and endorsed by the court so that a ruling would not contradict that of the Church.

Watani took these issues to Pope Tawadros.

• Let us begin with the family law, the most vital issue today preoccupying Copts.
Because it is the most important, the Church has taken several steps to deal with it. To speed up and simplify the resolution of issues of divorce and marriage annulment, we have opened a number of new venues to see such cases instead of the so far only one venue in Cairo that had been authorised to see family cases. This led to a pile-up of cases that rendered their resolution a very lengthy process. The new venues would ease matters considerably.
There are today venues in the United States, Europe, Australia, Africa, the Gulf States, as well as in Cairo, Alexandria, and Upper Egypt. Each venue includes four members: two priests, a lawyer; and a female doctor.

• This would of course relieve many, but will it alone solve the problem?
This takes us to the second and most important step, which is the draft of a unified family law for Christians. A draft of such a law was drawn up jointly by all the Churches in Egypt and has been presented more than once to former justice ministers since 44 years, but was repeatedly ignored.
Today, Egypt’s Constitution stipulates that Christians and Jews are entitled to family laws based on their own respective doctrines. The current Minister of Transitional Justice sent the original draft, with a few suggestions from the government, back to the Church for review and update. [The government proposals include an article that allows Christians the option of civil divorce and remarriage which does not have to be recognised by the Church.]
A committee formed of lawyers and bishops, with Anba Pola representing the Coptic Orthodox Church, is currently reviewing the draft law.
The unified family law adheres to the principle that divorce can only be granted in case of adultery, but it broadens the scope of ‘adultery’ to be in line with modern-day conditions. Adultery is taken to mean the physical or spiritual breakup of a relation; this constitutes a breach of the original contract or pledge. Spiritually, this occurs when one of the partners relinquishes his or her faith; since the marriage was contracted basing on the Christian faith, it is worthless if this faith is denied. As to physical adultery, it is no longer determined by the testimony of witnesses as had been stipulated before, but may be proved by letters, messages, images or videos of a discriminating nature.
Drug addiction has been added as a reason for divorce. This required that addiction be added to the physical check-up which is now a prerequisite to marriage. And, of course, impotence is one of the reasons for annulling a marriage.
But perhaps the most important and significant step the Church is taking is that it is attempting to impose preventive measures for failed marriages. We have set up counselling centres to prepare couples for marriage and to help them solve problems that may come up once they marry. The plan is to make participation in these courses a pre-condition for marriage.

• Following your enthronement as patriarch, you declared that a new set of regulations would be drawn for the election of a Coptic Orthodox Pope. What has been done on that score?
The 1957 bylaws for the election of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch needed amendment and updating even before the latest elections, but fears that any amendment would have been interpreted to favour a specific candidate led the Holy Synod to conduct the papal elections according to the old bylaws. Once the elections brought in the three names—mine included—that would go into the altar draw to determine the new pope, the Acting Patriarch Anba Pachomeus had each of us sign a pledge that, if he becomes pope, he would order the amendment of the bylaws in the space of one year.
Because I was absolutely convinced of the importance of the change required on that score, I ordered a committee to work on it only hours after the altar draw; I did not even wait for the enthronement to take place. The committee was headed by Anba Pachomeus and included as members nine bishops and nine laypersons from among the Melli Council members.
The committee drew a draft which was reviewed and approved by the Holy Synod last February. The draft law was sent to the Presidency which referred it to the State legislative committee for legal assessment.

• What about the unified law for building churches?
The law for building churches should see light either during the first round of the parliament that is yet to be elected, or by the President himself. This decision should be taken by the government after official discussions on the draft law are over.
Church building in Egypt is governed by the 1856 Hamayouni Edict which requires the approval of the head of State for the building of any church, and the 1934 Ezaby Conditions which stipulate 10 conditions that must be met prior to issuance of a presidential decree permitting the construction of a church. These conditions have always been seen as extremely oppressive; Pope Shenouda said they were even worse than the Hamayouni Edict.
However, Egypt’s Constitution stipulated that a law for the building of churches in Egypt should be passed during the first round of the first parliament after the revolution that overthrew the Islamist regime of the Muslim Brothers in July 2013.
The proposed bill includes definitions of the term ‘church’ as featured by each sect according to its rites and rituals. It also features a list and description of the health and community services offered by any typical church, and the buildings needed to house them.
The bill spells out the official permits required to license the erection of a church or affiliated community building, and the government authority in charge of issuing the permits. It stipulates a maximum 60-day period for an application to be rejected, otherwise it is automatically approved.
The proposed bill carries no article that links the building of a church in a given neighbourhood to its Coptic population. Such an article had been previously suggested by Islamic figures and politicians, but the current bill rejected it since there are as yet no official statistics that cite the numbers of Christians in Egypt at large or in any specific location.
Buildings in which prayers are performed regularly for one to three years warrant licence as churches, the bill stipulates.

• The year 2014 has taken you on several visits abroad, which Watani covered extensively and which aroused not a little controversy. Will you tell our readers about these visits?
These visits were all-important in that they came within a three-dimensional context: the pastoral, ecumenical, and patriotic.
My first visit abroad was to Lebanon on 28 March to offer condolence for the passing away of Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, the 122nd reigning Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East.
In May, I went on a five-day visit to the UAE [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/coptic-affairs/pope-tawadros-in-the-uae/109/] upon a State invitation by the UAE to consecrate a number of churches.
In June, I went to Norway and Finland where we have no Coptic churches but where a number of Coptic families reside. I ordained the first Coptic priest to serve in Scandinavia.
In mid-July, I visited Vienna for medical treatment; I have for years suffered from severe back pain and was under treatment there where I already have a medical file. When not in hospital I stay at the Coptic Orthodox monastery of St Anthony outside Vienna.
August saw me on a three-day visit to The Netherlands where I attended the 14th annual conference of the Coptic youth in Europe. Then I visited Switzerland where we have two Coptic churches in Geneva and where I talked with the World Council of Churches. [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/coptic-affairs/pope-tawadros-in-switzerland/11741/]
I then flew to Canada where I spent a whole month with our congregation there. I prayed with the congregation in many churches; spoke to them and delivered sermons; opened and consecrated churches, altars, and icons. I ordained priests and baptised children. It was a very charged schedule, but I was very happy to be there and celebrate 50 years on the first church in Toronto. [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/coptic-affairs/pope-tawadros-ii-visits-canada/11773/]. I laid the foundation stone of the first Coptic monastery in Canada, named after St Antonius. [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/church-affairs/connecting-with-the-mother-church/12119/]
Russia was the next visit in October; I met Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia and we talked of proposed collaboration on the ecumenical front. [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/coptic-affairs/pope-tawadros-ii-in-russia-reaching-out-eastwards/12382/]
The last visit in November again took me to Vienna [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/coptic-affairs/pope-tawadros-in-austria/12399/], this time to take part in the golden jubilee celebration of the Pro Oriente foundation which was established in 1964 by Cardinal Franz Koenig to foster closer relations between the Austrian Church on one hand and the three Oriental Orthodox Churches—the Coptic, Syriac, and Armenian Churches—on the other.
In all these visits, the pastoral work and the ecumenical work which strives to bring closer the various Churches, in peace and love, were evident. The one faith and common history they all share should make this goal attainable. In Vienna, I proposed to set a fixed, unified date for Easter, a proposal which was met with approbation.
Every time I leave Egypt, I carry her in my heart. I talk about Egypt’s political and economic revival, her new Constitution, and I even invite everyone to come visit the land that the Lord Himself blessed: “Blessed be Egypt my people” (Isaiah 19: 25)

• Now that we are at the outset of a New Year, what is Your Holiness preparing for the Church?
I have many dreams, and I ask the Lord to help me fulfil them. We have achieved a lot already. When I say ‘we’, I mean the great teamwork of the Holy Synod secretariats and committees, experts and bishops. We are endeavouring to set regulatory bylaws for every activity in the Church.
We have consecrated 22 bishops and seated nine, and established new bishoprics in Egypt and abroad. Now that the eldest and longest serving bishop in the Coptic Church, Anba Mikhail of Assiut, has passed away, it is necessary to look into the future of that bishopric.

• So what is the issue that most preoccupies you?
The Church cannot thrive without a groundwork of sound education. We should upgrade seminaries and theological institutes. We already have 11 nationwide and seven in Australia, US, Germany, Austria and Canada, but not all offer distinguished education. This has to be rectified. The curriculum, teaching staff, buildings, facilities and equipment all have to be upgraded. To that end, the Holy Synod in its latest meeting decided to establish a Coptic Theological Academy that would act as an umbrella institution for all the various Coptic seminaries and institutes inside and outside Egypt.
We have established a committee for scholarships, presided over by Secretary-General of the Holy Synod Anba Raphail, to foster scholarly exchange with seminaries in Greece, the UK and France.
I believe that each bishopric should establish a Coptic cultural centre in order to preserve our rich Coptic heritage for future generations. In 2014 we opened the Coptic Cultural Centre in Fayoum.
But our plans extend further into the future. We are preparing for a mega celebration in 2018 to mark 50 years since the manifestation of the Holy Virgin at Her Church in Zaytoun in Cairo. June 2018 will mark 50 years on the opening of the St Mark cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo, and August will feature a commemoration of the centenary of St Habib Girgis and his foundation of Sunday Schools in Egypt.

Watani International
31 December 2014

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