Problems on hold
Egypt’s Constitution stipulates that Christians are entitled to a family law which accords with their religious doctrines; also to the selection of their religious leaders according to the same doctrines. For now, measures are underway to enable these stipulations. The bylaws for papal elections have been updated, the law for building churches appears to be on its way to see light, and a bill for a unified family law for all the Christian sects in Egypt is in its final stages. The bill was jointly prepared by the main Churches in Egypt: the Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical; reviewed by the Ministry of Transitional Justice which handed it back to the Churches for comment, and re-submitted to the ministry last week. It now awaits final drafting so that it would be passed by presidential decree or by the new Parliament once it is elected.
Christians have waited long for a family law that would bring an end to the suffering of not a few families relegated to a life in limbo on account of discrepancy between the Church Bible-based law and the law used by courts to rule on family issues for Christians. The Church has always opposed the notorious 1938 Bylaws used by the courts, on the grounds that it contradicts the teachings of the Bible. The situation has been a thorn in the neck for Christians ever since the bylaws were applied back in 1938, and has more than once placed the Church in the position where it would not abide by a court order that contradicted Christian belief. The Church cannot be blamed; since the 1960s it regularly handed consequent justice ministers proposals for Christian family laws to replace the 1938 Bylaws. The justice ministers should have, in turn, forwarded these proposals to parliament, but they never did. It is obvious there was no political will to pass the law; the status quo prevailed till the new Constitution established in January 2014 stipulated the right of Christians to their own family law.
A reading of the recently drafted bill is reassuring. It is straightforward and clearly cites all the details that govern the foundation of a Christian family, nurture it, and protect it from disruption or collapse. It starts with the engagement phase and moves on to marriage, spelling out the rights and duties of each of the partners and the contraindications for marriage. It includes a chapter on child issues such as paternal authority, custody and paternity. The bill sets the rules for the dissolution of a marriage and the separation of spouses, issues that were among the most intricate, sensitive, and questionable in the 1938 Bylaws; the new bill renders the reasons for terminating a marriage unequivocal.
Once news leaked regarding the new bill, talk about the stipulation of civil marriage for Christians made the headlines. Whether out of misunderstanding or pestering, headlines set off announcing the Church’s acceptance of civil marriage. This created much confusion and unease since the Church could never endorse a practice out of context with its belief in marriage as a holy sacrament. I carefully went through the chapter on civil marriage, and cite here a few relevant paragraphs which prove beyond doubt that civil marriage is not endorsed as a substitute to Church marriage.
• A formal religious Christian marriage can only be concluded or dissolved according to the regulations, provisions, conditions and measures stipulated in this law. Christian spouses united through a formal Christian marriage may not have a civil non-Church marriage without the prior Christian dissolution of the already existing marriage, according to the stipulations of this law.
• A Christian man may marry a Christian woman through a civil non-Church marriage according to the regulations, conditions and measures of civil marriage. Egyptian Churches are obliged neither to recognise the civil marriage nor to perform formal Christian marriage rites based upon this civil marriage.
• Civil non-Church marriage between Christians in Egypt is only conducted between a single competent man and a single competent woman upon their proper consent, by a public notary.
• Civil marriage is subject to the same contraindications stipulated in this law, and to the provisions related to the rights and duties of the spouses. These provisions may not be violated. All provisions of alimony, custody and paternity also apply, as well as all the provisions included in the law. Civil marriage is dissolved according to the same rules stipulated by the law for dissolving marriage.
Obviously, the bill introduces civil marriage not as a Church-recognised union, but to ensure it does not contradict Church marriage. Those united through civil marriage might later apply for a Church marriage.
A blessed father passes away
After a life of sincere love, care and sanctity, the angel of Assiut, Anba Mikhail, has departed from our world. The eldest of all the Coptic Orthodox metropolitans and bishops, Anba Mikhail’s departure has wrenched the hearts of all who knew and loved him. During his final days his devotees divided into two camps, both venerated him and were extremely attached to him. One group could not even bare to think that Anba Mikhail would be leaving this world, his Church and congregation. The other group prayed for the Lord to sustain him on his deathbed. All now deeply mourn his loss and miss his blessings and his dedicated devotion to the Church of Assiut and its congregation throughout the 68 years from 1946 to 2014.
Assiut Church and congregation are not alone in mourning Anba Mikhail, millions upon millions of souls—myself included—who were moved by this blessed saint are devastated over the loss. As the person in charge of Watani, I enjoyed a very close personal bond with him, one that overflowed with love and respect. It is a relationship the details of which I keep in my heart, since Anba Mikhail did not wish for any of it to be made public. I honoured my promise all through the past 15 years, yet I now feel that the time has come for me to pay this blessed father his due. I thus intend to share the story of Anba Mikhail and Watani soon enough with my readers.
30 November 2014