Sectarian tensions can explode triggered by one of two things: a relationship between a Copt and a Muslim, or building a Church. Journalist and writer Karima Kamal's new book, Copts’ Personal Status Law (Al-Ahwal Al-Shakhseya lil Akbat), explores many of the hidden stories behind sectarian tensions, tackling both solutions and challenges.
Among an interested crowd, Kamal shared insights from her new work before a book-signing at Diwan Bookstore in Zamalek on Sunday 8 April.
Kamal introduced the book, indicating that it includes details from her earlier book, Divorce among Copts, and explores issues surrounding personal status law since the time of the publication in 2006. The issues were reopened recently following a crisis after the Church refused to abide by a notorious court ruling allowing a Copt to divorce and remarry, causing tensions to flare between the Church and the state during 2010. At the time, Islamists fought for the court ruling to be upheld, holding that 'no one is above the law' despite the case pertaining to religious law. "Today, they themselves would insist on Sharia law, which in this case would let the Church decide," Kamal explained.
Providing some background to the case, Kamal explained that while the media unhelpfully framed it as if were a general ruling, the court ruling actually referred to a specific case. It was not applicable to Copts in general seeking divorce. The next phase of the crisis was the famous demonstration of Copts requesting divorce and clashing with the Church’s security. Kamal reminded her audience that the solution many advocated of conversion is itself a cause of explosion of sectarian tensions. This was the case in Imbaba and the Kamelia Shehata incident – in both cases a Christian woman is said to have converted to Islam seeking to get out of an abusive marriage, with Muslims calling for 'Freedom for Sisters Kamelia and Abeer' while the Church claimed they were still Christians.
The issues surrounding Copts and divorce are relatively recent, dating to a 1971 ruling by late Coptic pope Shenouda III, rejecting divorce except in the case of adultery. Before this, an old ruling – Statute 38, regulated by law 55 – was operational, and it did grant Copts the rights to divorce and remarry.
Among the solutions on the table right now is a proposed law which, however, does not have approval from the three Christian churches in Egypt. The key point of contention is the right to adoption, which Protestants insisted on while the Orthodox Church did not mind foregoing this right. Kamal explained, "Islam does not approve of adoption. The compromise among the Orthodox was to forego adoption and in return any change in religion would render marriage broken, something that was not the case before." Egyptian Protestants refused this compromise. But in reality, the new law is even more strict, as Kamal explained, indicating that there is a risk that it could eventually be applied only to Orthodox Copts and not to Protestants or Catholics, complicating matters even further.
Today, even the church is becoming fluid, according to Kamal who gave the example of the Copts travelling to Jerusalemthis year, something that had been forbidden by the late pope. There is an air of uncertainty among Christians who are unsure of who the next pope will be, and what their views will be.
"In the presence of Islamists and their increased presence, there's a feeling among Copts that they should stick to their religious laws," Kamal explained. She stressed that we cannot understand the conservative tendency among Copts in isolation from the overall shift in society towards religion. "Even politics is now explained from a religious point of view, and therefore we cannot expect issues that are inherently religious to be dealt with in a less conservative way."
Mohammed El-Baaly, a publisher and journalist, who was among the audience members, commented that expanding the issue beyond the borders of the Church into the wider Egyptian community is a healthy direction to take.
For Kamal, the request to go back to Statute 38 under which Copts had the right to divorce is the best and possibly only way forward, since the solution proposed by civil marriage law is not really accepted by the Church. Church officials even warn that couples who have a civil marriage will not be admitted or remarried in church. The inter-sect divorce ruling was also closed.
"Copts abroad receive a civil divorce, simply because they have this luxury of living abroad," Kamal commented, stating that this ridiculous condition is like getting a train going to another destination and there you can solve all your problems.
In answer to questions about data, Kamal explained that this is not formal research since figures are not officially available; they are only estimates given that the church does not release such data. Not only is there no solid data, but many Copts are against the idea of standing against the church or raised their issues publicly.
The audience started proposing some ways out, including publisher Sherif Bakr, who suggested looking to other countries and how they have dealt with religious minorities such as Muslims in the West. Another suggestion from El-Baaly was to remove the religious status from personal status, thus liberating personal rights from religious rights, acknowledging that this was perhaps a very long term aim.
Regarding the proposed changes to Article 2 (an article in the 1971 constitution that affirmed Islam as the religion of the state and the values of Sharia as a source of legislation), indicating that non-Muslims are allowed to refer to their religious laws for personal status matters, Kamal said to Ahram Online that this would completely close the door to civil marriage for the time being.
Among the attendees was Nader El-Seirafy, spokesperson of Copts of 38, an organisation of Copts seeking a solution to the issues of marriage and divorce. El-Seirafy said she was happy that a renowned journalist such as Kamal was standing by their side. She added to Kamal's extended description of the issue that in the Church’s history, there is nothing that indicates the restriction of divorce to only the grounds of adultery. She referred to the four predecessors to the late pope Shenouda, who accepted divorce for 11 different reasons, therefore the new ruling renders the historical marriages and divorces to be against religion, and it is as if the Church was encouraging adultery. The situation has apparently been exacerbated since 2008: any case now requiring the application of Law 55 is refused by courts of law, considering it to be an internal issue and not a case for public law.
"The fear is that the new constitution will move away from from civil law and bring us closes to being a religious state, and this poses more risks for Bahaiis for example," Kamal indicated.
Kamal gave a brief description of the history of relations between the Church and the Egyptian state. She explained that it all started under the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser time who started dealing with Christians as a sect not as individual citizens, going through the pope for any matters to do with Copts. Sadat and Shenouda were never on good terms, however, and therefore relations between the state and the Church became tense, and Mubarak inherited this. Stress and pressure guided this relationship, Kamal said, but in general, Christians increasingly evaded the state and went through the Church even for civil issues. Kamal gave the example of situations when a priest would be asked to accompany a Christian to the police station if ever called there, instead of a lawyer.
According to Kamal's analysis, Copts left the church umbrella under rough conditions: the Omraneya incident (tension due to church building led Copts to protest in front of the police station and stage a sit-in) was the beginning, and the state rejected this. "Following the Two Saints Church bombings in Alexandriaon New Year's eve 2011, demonstrations broke out, even before the revolution, and eight Muslims who were among the demonstrators were captured. They were given two years imprisonment just recently, after the revolution and elections, although the whole thing originally happened under the previous regime," Kamal told the audience, giving an indication that the current regime wishes to continue the legacy of religious separation.
"The only solution is to apply the law, not to apply any judges' personal opinions about religious understanding," Kamal concluded, expressing hope for the new constitution, while concerned that any move away from the civil state will hit hardest on the Egyptian minorities.