Written by The Economist
3 June 2010
You can't just marry anyone. A secular step in a conservative country
And if it goes wrong you can’t try again
EGYPT’S laws governing marriage and divorce are a multi-storeyed affair. For the majority of Egyptians, who are Muslim, they are set by sharia law as interpreted by Imam Abu Hanifa, an eighth-century Iraqi scholar who founded one of Sunni Islam’s four jurisprudential schools. For Christians the rules depend on which church you belong to; Protestant evangelicals are more tolerant of divorce than are the Coptic Orthodox, for instance, and Syrian Orthodox regulations stipulate—among other things—that a man may not marry a woman who breastfed him. Jewish family law is divided between Hasidic and Rabbinical Jews, though both provide that a “foul odour” can be grounds for divorce.
The Muslim marriage ceremony is fully legally binding, since a maazoun, a Muslim marriage registrar, is a public servant, but it is generally then also registered as a civil marriage at the justice ministry. But Christians must always register their religious marriage with civil authorities for it to be legal. This has given churches a lot of power: though Christians can get a civil divorce, the church will not remarry them, so the state cannot recognise a new marriage.
This has affected Coptic Orthodox Christians in particular, as their pope, Shenouda III, has taken his flock on a more conservative path since he became the 116th successor to Saint Mark the Evangelist in 1971. A steady trickle of Orthodox Copts has joined the evangelicals, who are seen as less laden with heavy ritual, more generous with welfare and more flexible over marriage and divorce. In the Orthodox church divorce is rarely granted, and then only through a special petition to the pope.
When the church refused Hani Wasfi Naguib a second marriage after his divorce, he sued Pope Shenouda in Cairo’s Administrative Court, which adjudicates matters of legal procedure. Mr Naguib won his case last year, when the court told the church it must grant him his right to divorce and remarry. The church appealed and lost, with the Supreme Administrative Court ruling on May 29th that “the right to establish a family is a constitutional right, which is above all other considerations.”
Defiant Coptic bishops say “there is no power on earth that could make us violate the teachings of our Lord Christ.” The case will now go to the Supreme Constitutional Court, the highest in the land. In the meantime, the affair has stirred a debate over whether civil and religious law should be separate. Secularists have long argued that Egyptians should be able to marry outside their faiths. Islam, for instance, forbids a Muslim woman from marrying a non-Muslim man. Egypt is still conservative in such matters, so things are unlikely to change soon. But the latest court ruling may have marked a notable first step.