CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egyptian court has ruled that two Coptic men have the right to remarry, contradicting the church’s position and undermining its efforts to maintain its authority over the Christian community in Muslim-majority Egypt.
Saturday’s administrative court decision was prompted by a rare intervention by Pope Shenouda, leader of Egypt’s Copts, who launched an appeal by the church against another court ruling made in March 2008 that had approved the request by the two divorcees to remarry.
The ruling challenges the church’s efforts to hold sway over its flock and guard Coptic values in Egypt, where conservative Islamic trends have gained ground. Christians, mostly Copts, are about 10 percent of Egypt’s 78 million people.
Shenouda told a lecture in Alexandria on Sunday that the church would continue to not issue remarriage permits, except for cases where divorce was because of adultery, state news agency MENA reported.
The pope said he would not oppose the teachings of the holy book under any circumstances, MENA said.
Coptic lawyer Mamdouh Ramzi said earlier: “This verdict is not binding on the church.”
While it is accepted practice in the Muslim community, divorce and remarriage is only allowed in the Coptic tradition in certain cases, such as where adultery is involved, he said.
“We do not object to court rulings but the church has principles that no one can break, not even Pope Shenouda,” said Ramzi, who has acted in cases to defend the church’s position in the past. He said many Copts could be upset by the decision.
The two men had raised the court challenge against the church’s decision to block their remarriage. The administrative court ruling is based on an assessment of the constitution.
Egyptian rights lawyer Hossam Bahgat said Saturday’s verdict was “the first of its kind” and said it showed the need for civil marriages to be recognised in Egypt, where religious ceremonies are the only ones now accepted.
Analysts said the case highlighted tensions between the church and the authorities. The church publicly supports the government of President Hosni Mubarak but sometimes complains that grievances are not properly addressed.
Relations between Egypt’s Copts and Muslim communities are generally calm, but can sometimes erupt into violence over issues such as land and inter-faith marriages or relationships.
“The case reflects tension between the church and the state,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, an Egyptian analyst at the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
“It shows Pope Shenouda’s ... desire to impose his powers, instead of the state’s, over the Christian community,” he said.
Under Egypt’s personal laws, marriage and divorce proceedings are based on the couple’s religion. But in any marriage between a Muslim and non-Muslim, Islamic law prevails.
In another case in 2002, a court ruled that a Coptic woman, the well-known Egyptian actress Hala Sidki, could divorce her Coptic husband. But she only won her case after years spent in in court and after the church relented and backed her divorce.
Editing by Edmund Blair