We were four members of the Coptic Orthodox Melli Council (community laity council) visiting Pope Tawadros II last week; the Council Secretary-General Tharwat Bassily, Monsef Soliman, Mounir Azmy and myself. We were worried about the commotion that erupted during His Holiness’s Wednesday evening prayer meeting at St Mark’s Cathedral in Abassiya earlier this month; a few men shouted, matters got out of hand, and the Pope left the church without delivering his sermon.
The media explained off the commotion as conducted by a few men who had divorce cases that had not been resolved by the Church. But it turned out that those who disrupted the prayer meeting had no problems with the Church on that score; in fact, some of them were not married in the first place. It was said that they were acting on behalf of lawyers whose business would hurt on account of the passage of the new unified family law for Christians. Regardless of the details, all four of us sought Pope Tawadros in order to know first hand the truth about the matter, and for His Holiness to reassure those who have family problems that the Church understands their predicaments and works to resolve them.
Pope Tawadros talked with his customary calm and wisdom. He explained that the Church had exercised both right and empathy while drafting a new family law, known in Arabic as the Bylaws of the Personal Status for Christians. ‘Right’ was exercised in holding on to Christian parameters and the Bible’s teachings, and ‘empathy’ in coming to terms with the realities of modern life and communal and family needs. The new draft law, the Pope said, was presented to the State relevant authorities, and should be passed as a law during the first round of the upcoming parliament which, as stipulated by Egypt’s Constitution, should pass the law for building and restoring churches and the unified family law for Christians. Once it is passed, the courts should rule accordingly in the family cases of Christians.
Pope Tawadros explained that, apart from the new family law, the Church plans to take measures to facilitate the procedures for resolving family problems. The central Coptic Orthodox Clerical Council in Cairo—the Church body hitherto exclusively concerned with resolving family cases—can no longer efficiently handle the escalating number of cases placed before it owing to the growing Coptic congregation inside and outside Egypt. Therefore, the Pope said, clerical councils will be attached to the various parishes to look into local family cases. Each of these councils will be headed by the parish bishop, and will include a priest, a legal expert, and a female doctor; together they should take decisions on the family problems placed before them. The decisions of the parish councils may be appealed before six higher regional councils; one will handle Cairo and Giza, another Alexandria and the Delta region, and a third Upper Egypt. The other three will handle cases of the Copts in the Diaspora. The new councils will go into operation 1st of July, three days from now.
The Pope is confident that, once passed, the new family law which he describes as ‘pragmatic’, and the newly structured clerical councils will put an end to the dissatisfaction of Copts regarding unresolved family problems. Problems arising with newly formed families will also be swiftly tackled. The Pope agreed with us that this momentous achievement needs to be publicised in the media as well as in churches and parishes. Many Copts inside and outside Egypt will be comforted and reassured by the new decisions which should set the ground for the personal rights and duties that all must abide by under the umbrella of the Church.
I suggested to the Pope that the new family law should include legislation on inheritance. Whereas Muslims in Egypt are governed by sharia law in matters of inheritance, no specific law exists for Christians in this regard; the courts thus rule according to sharia in cases concerning Christians. This issue has preoccupied me a lot and I broached it more than once in Watani editorials. Last February I wrote that, in Christianity, men and women are equal in inheritance shares. I found historic backing in the book Ahkaam wa Qawaid al-Mawareeth wal-Wassiya Wifqan li-Ahkaam al-Sharia al-Masseehiya—wa Ahkaam al-Sharia al-Islamiya (Rules and Fundamentals of Inheritance and Wills According to the Provisions of Christian Doctrines—and the Provisions of Islamic Jurisdiction) by Fathy Ragheb Hanna, a lawyer with the Constitutional Court and the Court of Cassation. I pointed out to Pope Tawadros that if this addition on inheritance is added to the family law for Christians it will not only serve justice for Christians but will also provide a role model for all Egyptians to follow, and will make a valuable addition to the contributions and achievements of the Egyptian Church throughout the ages. The Pope agreed to explore the suggestion.
We left Pope Tawadros full of appreciation at his role in bringing the Church up to the requirements and responsibilities of modern times.
28 June 2015