Coptic group rejects constitutional proposal that Christians be subject to the church in family law

Sherry El-Gergawi, Wednesday 26 Sep 2012

Little-known group of Coptic-Christians calls for Copts to be subject to Islamic Law – which, unlike church law, allows for divorce – under Egypt's new constitution

Nader & Ghaleb
Nader El-Serafy spokesman of "38 Coptic" group (L) Judge Edward Ghaleb the head of the Rights and Freedoms committee in the constituent assembly (R) (Photo: courtesy of

The dispute between Coptic and secular activists on one hand and Islamist political forces on the other over Article 2 of Egypt's constitution – which states that Islamic Law is "the main source of legislation" – ended in compromise.

While the article would remain as it was in Egypt's 1971 constitution, two new articles would be added to the national charter – one making Egypt's Al-Azhar the "exclusive reference" for issues related to Islamic Law, and another ensuring that Egypt's Christians and Jews would be subject to their own confessional regulations concerning religious and personal-status issues.

Now, however, Article 2 has become the subject of a new Coptic-Coptic dispute after an obscure Coptic group, dubbed the '38 Copts Association,' rejected the above-mentioned compromise. The group derives its name from a 1938 decree by the Coptic Church's Holy Synod – later overturned by late Coptic Pope Shenouda III – granting Copts the right to divorce.

The group demands that, as Egyptians, they should be constitutionally subject to Islamic Law, which – unlike Coptic law – allows for divorce.

On Sunday, the group addressed the social dialogue committee of Egypt's Constituent Assembly, which is tasked with drafting a new constitution.

The group justified its request to the committee, which is headed up by the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed El-Beltagi, by stating that Islamic Law "protects the dignity of the Abrahamic religions" and "grants Christians and Jews equal rights with Muslims."

In an official memorandum to the committee, the group stated: "There is no such thing as Christian jurisprudence. For this reason, the Bible instructs us to adhere to the laws of the state."

Therefore, the memorandum concluded, Egyptian Christians should "follow Islamic Law since it represents the main source of legislation in Egypt."

According to association head Rafiq Farouq, the 1938 decree had allowed Copts to divorce, but this changed under Pope Shenouda, who had made adultery the sole reason for divorce. The group, therefore, wants Egypt's Copts to be subject to Egyptian civil law, which is – according to the constitution – derived in turn from Islamic Law.

"I want to be treated like a Muslim, to whom I'm not inferior," asserted Farouq. "We reject attempts by the Coptic Church to insert an article into the new constitution making Copts subject to the church's rulings."

At the hearing before the Constituent Assembly, the group also demanded that Coptic marriages be subject to civil law, as is the case with Muslim marriages. The group added that the new constitution should guarantee all Egyptians the right to marriage, as it does other basic rights.

At one point, an argument erupted between group members and Judge Edward Ghaleb, who serves as both head of the Coptic Church's lay council and head of the Constituent Assembly's rights and freedoms committee.

According to Ghaleb, the group's grievances are of an "individual" nature, while the constitution is meant to address general principles. He added that the assembly would look into Coptic grievances, but stressed that the new charter was being written "for all Egyptians."

Ghaleb, who made the comments in his capacity as head of the rights and freedoms committee (not as lay council head), went on to say that the church should be left out of civil, political and partisan issues, and focus primarily on spiritual matters.

Other Coptic groups, meanwhile, reacted to the 38 Copts' proposal with fury.

The 'Copts without Restrictions' movement, for its part, a Coptic rights group established in the wake of last year's revolution, declared on its Facebook page that "the claimed desire by certain Copts to adhere to Islamic rulings is a fabrication."

The movement went on to accuse the 38 Copts Association of "representing only themselves," insisting that the memorandum presented to El-Beltagi's committee had been issued by a group "pursuing its own agenda."

"Christian law is the law of the single spouse, whether you like it or not; its rulings emanate from the Bible alone," the group's statement read, going on to describe the 38 Copts as "a few individuals who have deviated from the fundamentals of our faith against the Church."

The group went on to warn the Constituent Assembly against framing constitutional articles at odds with traditional church teachings.

"If El-Beltagi and his group [the Muslim Brotherhood] want to hear the true voice of the Copts, he will hear our roar… which will shake the ground under his feet if the Constituent Assembly – which is invalid to begin with – adopts constitutional articles that touch on the core of our Christian faith."

The Coalition of Egyptian Copts, another group devoted to safeguarding Coptic rights, similarly blasted the 38 Copts, describing the group on its Facebook page as unrepresentative of Egypt's large Coptic-Christian community. "They're a very small group, not exceeding a couple dozen members," the coalition said of the little-known association.

The coalition went on to urge the 38 Copts to "resolve their personal problems within the framework of the Church," which, it said, "is entirely capable of resolving its congregants' difficulties."

The coalition's statement concluded: "It is impossible for Copts, who represent some 20 million Egyptians, to agree with the group's demand to be subject to Islamic Law on personal-status issues."

Egypt's Coptic community, the largest concentration of Christians in the Middle East, is believed to represent between 10 and 15 per cent of the country's overall population of 90 million.

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