In the latest escalation of the crisis between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the national judiciary, Pope Shenouda yesterday convened a press conference in opposition to the Supreme Administrative Court ruling compelling the church to validate second marriages following divorce in all circumstances. Stating clearly the church’s respect for Egyptian law, it will nevertheless not execute any order which violates Biblical teaching or the consciences of church leadership.
Pope Shenouda delivered his statement, signed after an emergency meeting of the Holy Synod in which 83 bishops signaled their support, from his papal residence at St. Mark’s Church in Abbasia, Cairo. He delivered his remarks against a background of images ripe with symbolic meaning. On the Pope’s left was his own portrait, representing his authority as leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. On his right was a portrait of President Mubarak, representing the authority of the Egyptian state. Above his head, central and lifted above the other two pictures, was Jesus Christ, seated on his heavenly throne, with the Coptic phrase ‘Our Lord is present’ over his head. Placed especially for this occasion were three Bible verses on which the church makes its case:
But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:32)
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. (Luke 21:33)
We must obey God rather than men! (Acts 5:29)
Framing the issue furthermore was a headline in the Egyptian independent newspaper al-Dustur, which asked if this legal crisis would become the first clash between Pope Shenouda and President Mubarak. President Mubarak famously lifted the ban on Pope Shenouda placed by President Sadat, restoring him to the papacy and ushering in a period characterized in the large by cordial relations between the two leaders. While there have been rocky moments to be sure, Zachariah Ramzi of the Coptic newspaper Call of the Country stated that this is the first instance of government interference in the church that touches upon issues of Biblical ordinance. He added that whereas the Pope had been tolerant and forgiving over offenses committed against Christians in Egypt, in this issue involving doctrine he was both accurate and firm. Involving Holy Writ, must there inevitably be a clash?
In answering questions after this almost unheard of papal press conference, Pope Shenouda clearly stated that church refusal to implement this judicial ruling did not mean the church considered itself an independent state within a state. He also indicated, however, that marriage is a holy sacrament and not an administrative matter, and furthermore, he as pope is not a government employee. Pope Shenouda stated that he did not want to embarrass or put President Mubarak in a compromising position, but spoke also that while the president must be concerned with the independence of the judiciary, he must also be concerned with the millions of Copts who speak out against this ruling. Tellingly, throughout his remarks Pope Shenouda challenged the legal system, not the president. He spoke of Islamic sharia, from which Egyptian law is principally drawn according to the Constitution, stating it guarantees Christians freedom in managing their internal affairs. Additionally, the pope listed multiple civil laws and precedents which enshrine this dictate especially in the personal status codes. If a clash is coming, it is aimed at the judiciary; the government, but not the president.
Bishop Agathon of the diocese of Maghagha concurs. He noted that the leaders of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Churches together formulated a draft for incorporation into the personal status codes, in which the Biblical understanding of divorce is respected. Given to the People’s Assembly in 1979, the issue has been tabled without decision or explanation. Adoption of this proposal, states the bishop, would solve the problem completely. As it is, such judicial activism serves only to disturb all Copts, from leadership to the people.
Nabil Luka Bebawi is a Coptic member of the People’s Assembly. Sometimes criticized by Copts for not taking a firmer stance against perceived government neglect of Coptic affairs, during the press conference he also criticized the judicial ruling. Furthermore, he carried with him a tome, nearly ten centimeters thick, in which he chronicled Coptic difficulties in family law over the past several years. Entitled ‘Personal Status Problems of Christians in Light of the Egyptian Legal System’, he intended to present his study directly to Pope Shenouda. As a highly placed voice of opposition to the ruling, Bebawi nevertheless directs his effort through the church, but again, it is aimed at the judiciary.
What is not yet clear are the stakes in this contest. What does the church risk if it fails to act according to the judicial ruling? Dina Abd al-Karim, host of ‘House on the Rock’, a Coptic television program focusing on family and marriage issues, stated that this was the one item left open from the press conference. Father Ruweis, the patriarchal deputy of Alexandria, speculates that should the government press upon the church, he and his clerical colleagues are ready to go to prison. He clarified, however, that no such threat has been issued, privately or publically.
If the speech of the church is directed upon the judiciary, their eyes are on the president. Expectations, however, are different. Bishop Kyrillos of Nag Hamadi expects the government to do nothing, stating that Copts have no value. Bishop Bisenti of Helwan is more hopeful. The next step, he says, is simply to pray, hoping that President Mubarak will take care of this issue, and do so quickly. Pope Shenouda described the situation thus:
Imagine: This decision by the court has been rejected by the pope, the Holy Synod, by all the clergy, and by all the (Coptic) people. So what does this mean? This has to be reconsidered; otherwise it will mean that the Copts are under duress and suffering pressures concerning their religion.
This statement garnished the loudest applause of anything spoken during the press conference.
Returning to the above image, the symbolism runs deeper. President Mubarak on the right, Pope Shenouda on the left, but Jesus lifted above them both. For church imagery, this is entirely appropriate. Christ is Lord of the church, even as its governmental host and temporal head wrangle over the civil and ecclesiastical matter of divorce and remarriage. Upon closer inspection, however, the horizontal alignment of earthly equality is broken in the hands of Jesus. There, he holds a Bible on whose right hand page is a picture of Pope Shenouda himself. Jesus upholds the authority of the pope as the pope upholds the authority of the Bible. ‘Our Lord is present’ – and with him is Pope Shenouda.
May a clash not occur, but should it be so the press conference provided a clear picture of the church’s position vis-à-vis the government, and upon whose authority this matter must be decided.
If you like, please view a video clip we produced in association with this story.