By DAVID BEDEIN
Middle East Correspondent
JERUSALEM – The Middle East Newsline has revealed that the regime of President Hosni Mubarak has decided to confront the Coptic Church, the largest in Egypt.
An Egyptian court, in a move supported by the Mubarak regime, has sought to force the church to enable congregants to divorce in violation of the Coptic faith. The court said the Coptic Church must ensure that congregants can divorce and remarry at will.
“The recent ruling is not acceptable to our conscience, and we can not implement it,” Coptic Pope Shenouda said.
The Coptic decision, released on June 8, was supported by the church’s 91 bishops. Copts form the largest minority in Egypt, with about 10 percent of the overall population of 78 million.
In May 2010, Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the Coptic Orthodox Church could not prevent members from divorce and remarriage. Judge Mohammed Husseini reaffirmed a lower court ruling that a Coptic congregant, Hani Naguib, could remarry.
“By law, a Christian can remarry, and the constitution guarantees his rights to have a [new] family,” Mr. Husseini said.
This marked the first time in modern Egyptian history that the regime has sought to regulate the religious life of non-Muslims. Under Islamic law, recognized non-Muslim faiths were given religious autonomy.
Civil marriage is not recognized in Egypt. Islamic law, the dominant religion, allows Muslims to divorce their wives by uttering, “I divorce you,” three times.
In his statement, the 86-year-old Shenouda, who spent four years under house arrest during the 1980s, said the court ruling violates Coptic faith. Since then, the Copts have held protests against the decision, expected to be appealed to the Supreme Constitutional Court.
The decision was expected to result in the most serious confrontation between the Egyptian regime and the Coptic Church since 1981. In that year, then-President Anwar Sadat, angry over the church’s cancellation of Easter celebrations, exiled Mr. Shenouda to a desert monastery and arrested more than 30 leading Coptic clerics. The cancellation of Easter celebrations took place in the wake of Mr. Sadat’s refusal to protect Copts against increasing attacks by Muslims.
The latest court decision against the church, with a powerful lobby in the United States, has been supported by Egypt’s state-owned media. Egypt’s leading state-owned daily, Al Ahram, has portrayed the court’s decision as an attempt to liberalize Coptic society.
Al Ahram said at least 2,000 petitions for divorce have been submitted to the church every year. Coptic leaders said the figure is one-tenth of that.
“The Egyptian government is behaving even more intolerantly than its medieval Muslim predecessors who, while openly oppressive of Christians, at least allowed the latter to govern their own, personal affairs according to Christian doctrine,” Raymond Ibrahim, associate director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum and lecturer at the U.S. National Defense Intelligence College, said.
For his part, Mr. Shenouda has not ruled out the prospect that he and his aides could again be imprisoned. He has threatened to defrock any priest who follows the court ruling.
“The law of religious leaders is the Gospel and church laws,” Mr. Shenouda said. “Whoever wants to remain within the church has to abide by its laws.”
David Bedein can be reached at email@example.com.