Christians wait for new personal status law

Recent hype surrounding Coptic divorce has brought back to the table the issue of a personal status law for Christians, with this month seeing the second draft for such a law submitted to the government.

Controversy was stirred in May this year when a judge ruled in favor of the remarriage of a Coptic divorced man, against the will of the Coptic church. “The Egyptian court has penetrated a space which they shouldn’t have entered,” said Ashraf Edward, a Christian lawyer.

According to Article II of the Egyptian Constitution, Islamic law is the source of Egyptian law. Before 1920 each religious group in Egypt organized their own personal affairs, however in 1920 the first Personal Status Law was enacted, which followed Islamic law.

This was qualified by a legal regulation approved in 1938 to be used by judges when ruling on matters relating to personal status in Christian cases. The regulation was updated in 1955. However it was not supported by the Coptic church, who considered the drafters of the regulation to be secularists.

In 1979, the Coptic Church submitted to the People’s Assembly a draft personal status law that could be applied to Christians, but received no response.

More recently, the church was assigned by the government to set up a committee to revise the (still in draft form) law. The committee consisted of bishops from the three main Christian denominations, namely orthodox, Catholic and protestant, in addition to both Muslim and Christian lawyers. It was headed by Omar el-Sherif, vice minister of justice for legislative affairs.

The revised draft law includes 141 articles and was passed to the Ministry of Justice on 9 July this year.

The committee was however accused of excluding some Christian denominations, such as the Roman Orthodox church and Anglicans, according to Father Rafic Greiche, press director for the Greek Catholic church in Egypt.

Ramsis el-Naggar, a lawyer representing the Coptic church in the committee, said other Christian denominations not represented in the committee were however given the draft law to approve it before it was finalized.

El-Naggar added that a meeting of 300 Christians was held last month to discuss the draft and common issues that it needed to solve. “Secular Christians were present at this meeting,” he said.

The new law covers the controversial issue of divorce. “The Christian Personal Status Law gives more reasons for divorce than the old regulation issued in 1938,” said el-Naggar. According to the 1938 legal instrument, adultery is the only legal justification for a divorce among Christians. But according to the new draft, a divorce can be obtained when a spouse obliges his/her partner to engage in non-religiously-ordained sexual intercourse.

Moreover, any evidence of adultery may be taken into account by the court under the new law, as opposed to previous restrictions on admissible evidence. This means that phone calls and mobile messages can now be taken into consideration by judges.

The new law also allows child adoption, which is not permitted by Egypt’s general Personal Status Law (a modified version of the 1920 version).

The issue of inheritance however remains unresolved. According to the current Egyptian Personal Status Law, men inherit double the amount of what women are entitled to (as according to Islamic law), while within Christian doctrine both men and women are entitled to equal inheritance. “The committee has left this issue to Christian families [to deal with] on their own and not through law,” said el-Naggar.

The draft law includes some “preaching” measures on values, calling for obedience to and respect for parents, raising children well, and faithfulness in marital relations, among others. While these articles are complementary and intended to serve as a spiritual context to support judges in reaching their verdicts, they are not considered by some to be a necessary part of a personal status law. “I don’t approve of these articles because the law is there to administer personal relations, not to preach to people,” said Ashraf Edward.

For some legal experts, the new law does not provide an optimal solution to problems posed by Egypt’s general Personal Status Law. “I’m sure a lot of problems will come up when this new law is implemented,” said Edward.

The committee has also been criticized for not including non-Christians, although it was assigned by the government specifically with the task of putting forward a draft personal status law for non-Muslims. As the draft law excludes other non-Muslim religions, such as Bahai’s for example, its title was amended to “Christian Personal Status Law.”

Meanwhile, rights groups have called for a more civil personal status law that would not be exclusively “Christian.”

“The government has a role here. They should be making the law inclusive enough for whoever wants to follow it,” said Adel Ramadan, a lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

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