It is not enough that the Egyptian government facilitates persecution of the Copts, Egypt’s indigenous Christian minority. Now the government is interfering directly with the church’s autonomy concerning doctrine. According to the Assyrian International News Agency:
The head of the Coptic Church in Egypt has rejected a court ruling that orders the church to allow divorced Copts to remarry in the church. In a press conference held on Tuesday June 8, Pope Shenouda [III], reading from the statement issued by the Holy Synod’s 91 Bishops, including himself, said: “The Coptic Church respects the law, but does not accept rulings which are against the Bible and against its religious freedom which is guaranteed by the Constitution.” He went on to say “the recent ruling is not acceptable to our conscience, and we cannot implement it.” He also said that marriage is a holy sacrament of a purely religious nature and not merely an “administrative act.”
Though little reported in the West, this issue is rapidly boiling over. There is even talk that, if he does not submit to the court’s ruling, the pope will (once again) be imprisoned. What is behind such unprecedented governmental interference with the Coptic Church’s autonomy?
Reading Egypt’s national newspaper, Al Ahram, one gets the impression that, by trying to make divorce and remarriage easier for Copts, the Egyptian government is attempting to “liberalize” Coptic society — only to be challenged by an antiquated pope not open to “reform.” It quotes one Copt saying that the “pope’s limiting divorce and remarriage to cases of adultery is unfair. It is against human nature.” Even the manager of the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance claims that his position “exposes Pope Shenouda’s desire to impose his will over the Christian community” (a curious statement, considering that some 10,000 Copts recently demonstrated in support of the pope, and that the Catholic and Orthodox churches — which guide some 1.5 billion Christians — hold similar views on divorce and remarriage).
At any rate, lest the reader truly think that the Egyptian government is becoming more “liberal,” there are a few important facts to remember:
First, according to the Second Article of the Egyptian Constitution, Sharia law — one of, if not the most draconian law codes to survive the Medieval period — is “the principal source of legislation.” This means that any number of measures contrary to basic human rights are either explicitly or implicitly supported by the Egyptian government, including polygamy, the obstruction of churches, and institutionalized discrimination against non-Muslims and females in general. Put differently, Sharia law can be liberal — but only to male Muslims, who (speaking of marriage and divorce) can have up to four wives, and divorce them by simply uttering “I divorce you” thrice (even via “text messaging”).