Civil Personal Status Law: the fight for an equal right to a happy life for Copts
Ekram Ibrahim, Tuesday 5 Jul 2011
A group of Copts call for protests Thursday in their fight for their “right to life,” i.e. a personal status law which would grant them, like Muslims, the right to divorce, remarry and adults to choose their religion

“After desperately seeking divorce for five years, I converted to Islam to get rid of my wife,” Y.R., 40 years old told Ahram Online.

Y.R. is one of thousands of Copts (the largest Christian denomination in Egypt) who suffer because the Coptic Church refuses to grant them a divorce. The Coptic Church only allows divorce and remarriage of divorced people in very rare cases, leaving a big portion in the grey area; either they endure eternal separation without being granted a divorce, or live as an unsatisfied couple, or in rare circumstances actually get a divorce, but isn’t given a remarriage permit.

To find a way out of the quagmire, a group of Copts are organising a protest for Thursday to call for a civil personal status law. “We want the country to grant us our right to life outside the church doors,” said Ayman George, 46 years old, Deputy Managing Editor, Ahram Weekly, one of the main initiators of the “right to life,” initiative which calls for a civil personal status law. George has been separated from his wife for eight years and has not been able to get a divorce.

The “right to life” initiators agree that a civil marriage status law for Copts will not only give a second chance to the Copts who are seeking divorce, but will also save the country from increasing sectarian violence and church burnings.

Recently, Egypt has witnessed several violent sectarian attacks in response to confirmed and unconfirmed reports of Copts converting to Islam in order to get divorced and remarry. In fact, after the Egyptian revolution, two major sectarian clashes took place that lead to churches and Copts’ homes being set afire and left hundreds injured. One was in Imbaba after a Coptic woman converted to Islam and married a Muslim was allegedly held by the Coptic church against her will; and the other after a love story between a Coptic male and a Muslim female, which is taboo.

Legal context

In Egypt, an Islamic law regulates marriage status issues for Muslims and Christians through a legal regulation approved in 1938. No civil laws are implemented; each citizen is subjected to the laws of the religion declared on his or her government identification card.

Originally, the 1938 regulation was issued by the bourgeois, who were considered by the Coptic Church later on to be secularists. At the time it gave seven “outs” for a divorce. In 2008, however, it was amended and limited the reasons to only three: if one of the two commits adultery; conversion from Christianity to Islam; conversion from one Christian denomination to another.

Moreover, several lawyers believe that the changes made to the 1938 regulation made divorce more accessible to the rich and less so to the poor. “Changing denominations is now banned in Egypt, so people seeking divorce go to lawyers and ask for a foreign certificate that states they belong to another denomination, which ranges from USD $1000 to 2000,” Bassem Zaher, lawyer explained to Ahram Online.

Some Copts take the option of buying a certificate that states they’ve converted from Coptic to another denomination, but it’s not that simple. The court has to verify that the certificate is not fake, that the petitioner has actually travelled and was baptised, and didn’t simply buy a document.

While the original 1938 regulation gave more options, the new one included adultery and any form of cheating a valid reason for divorce. “Now any phone call, text message or picture that shows that one of them is in a relationship with anyone except his/her spouse is proof enough for the church to grant a divorce,” says Ramsis El-Naggar, a lawyer who was one of the members of the committee who amended the original 1938 regulationtold Ahram Online.

The personal status law not only regulates marriage and divorce, but also inheritance, children’s custody in the case of divorce and the children’s legal religious classification if any of the parents converts.

“The current laws have so many problems, including obliging the children to convert to Islam if their father converts. Children should have the right to choose as their reach 21. We are working on a draft law to reach a middle ground,” Azza Soliman, legal assistant, Center for Egyptian Women told Ahram Online.

Social context

Most Egyptians feel marriage is strictly a religious institution. “For me, civil marriage is a paper from the state legalising adultery, whereas it [marriage] should be there for those who believe in it,” expressed Naguib Gobrial, Coptic activist and one of the the Coptic Church's legal councellors, to Ahram Online.

Meanwhile, as society changes several agree that civil marriage should also exist. “Thestateshould guarantee freedom to all citizens and should not divide the society into Muslims and Copts; each to be ruled by their religion,” Hani Labib, writer opined to Ahram Online.

Currently Egypt is witnessing a transitional period that has brought out a voice to extreme ideologies; from the most conservative Salafist Islamic groups to communists on the other side. It’s yet to be seen where the dust will settle: whether Egypt will shift to a more secular country or the opposite.

After the protest planned on Thursday, the rights activists will propose a draft law to the ministry of justice and Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. This law would work in parallel to the one proposed by a group of Christian churches in Egypt in 2010, which Ahram Online received no comment from.