Family law for Christians

29-03-2013 01:59 PM

Youssef Sidhom

Since he became patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church last November Pope Tawadros II has repeatedly declared that putting the house [of the Church] Since he became patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church last November Pope Tawadros II has repeatedly declared that putting the house [of the Church] in order was among his first priorities. Any observer is bound to note that the Pope’s leadership, fatherly care, love and wisdom, reflect a Divine choice of the most suitable pope to meet the needs of the Church and her congregation at this point in time.
Much awaits the Pope to put the house in order. There are pressing issues, thorny cases, or issues concerned with development and modernisation. The Personal Status Bylaws for Christians (the family law) is among the particularly thorny issues, and has aroused heated controversy all through the last decade. It involves two aspects, one linked with legislation and the State, and the other relates to the Coptic public.
It is some 30 years now since all the Churches in Egypt approved a new family law and presented it to the Ministry of Justice for the ministry to refer it to Parliament for legislation. The new law would replace the current law which was enacted back in 1938, and which the Church sees as contradictory to direct Biblical teachings. The Church refuses to recognise or execute court rulings that contradict the Bible, since they obviously go against the raison d’être of the Church.
During these 30 years, the Church more than once presented its proposed family law for Christians to the Justice Ministry for it to get the wheels of legislation rolling, but the ministry stalled and the law never saw light. The official problem with the family law for Christians thus requires that the Church works to persuade the State to bring to an end the official paralysis on passing of the new law.
And to those who demand that the Church should remain out of politics we remind that such a move by the Church has nothing to do with politics. Contrary to the political, rights, and national issues relating to Christians; their spiritual and personal affairs are the direct concern of their Church.
The other aspect of the family law for Christians relates to the Coptic public and to the manner in which daily disputes, some of which may jeopardise the family, are settled. The Church should come up with a mechanism that would enable her to deal with these issues, whether through treatment or precautionary measures.
The 1938 Bylaws, drafted then by the laity Melli (Community) Council of the Coptic Orthodox Church, stipulated lenient measures for divorce and remarriage. I am neither discussing the fairness of the old family law nor its agreement with Biblical teachings, since the Church alone is in the position to determine that. I am reminding, however, of the pile-up of problems of Christian families that find themselves in the dilemma of a marriage that is unworkable and a Church which rejects divorce granted by courts according to the 1938 Bylaws.
In this respect, I have a number of suggestions to offer:
•    The Church should operate within the Christian principles of justice and mercy. If Biblical literal justice sounds explicit and non-negotiable, mercy is tolerant and should lead through paths that can save broken families and opens windows of hope.
•    If we all agree that a new family law for Christians should replace the 1938 Bylaws, it goes without saying that the new law would be applied after it is officially passed and after Copts in Egypt are informed of it. No claims can be made retroactively to benefit from expired measures to resolve family issues.  
•    Any form of justice may require a transitional period in order for it to be fully applied, especially if it is related with settling old cases that arose under previous legislation. The Church, in an exercise of love and mercy, should arrange for some mechanism to deal with the cases dating earlier than the new family law when this comes into action.
•    Precautionary measures are much more important than treatment. The Church is today careful to prepare those contemplating marriage to handle the responsibilities of marriage and family. It offers programmes to prepare couples planning to get married, and to guide newly married couples. The Church’s efforts in this regard are commendable, since they make sure new families are armed with the tools to face challenges and immune them against breakdown.
These family support programmes, however, need to be generalised and participation in them should be compulsory, a prerequisite for marriage. The Church can also refuse to marry couples it deems incompatible to live a Christian marriage. Granted, this may sound cruel, but is it not better than facilitating marriage then finding it difficult to settle matters in case of insurmountable problems?
I offer my thoughts to Pope Tawadros, trusting in his love, wisdom and keenness to truly put the house in order.

WATANI International
31 March 2013

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