An interesting debate is taking place in Egypt regarding a controversial court ruling that ordered the Coptic Orthodox Church to allow its members to divorce and remarry. Prior to this development, the Church had long taken the position that divorce can only be granted to individuals whose spouses had committed adultery. Unsurprisingly, Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic Church, along with many of its faithful, has strongly condemned the ruling, which many view as a blatant intervention by the state in the internal affairs of the Church.
The government’s response is worthy of attention. A few days after the controversy surfaced earlier this month, a Church official told Al-Masry Al-Youm that (an unnamed) prominent leader in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) promised Pope Shenouda that the government would issue an executive decision to resolve the crisis. The next day the Ministry of Justice began working with the Pope and Egypt’s Christian Churches to draft a new personal status law for non-Muslims to mitigate the outcry that followed the court’s decision.
Whether or not the new law will gain the full approval of the Church and those angered by the court’s ruling remains to be seen. Yet one thing is clear: this episode comes at an opportune moment from the perspective of the ruling party, which has used the crisis to assert its traditional role as the “defender” of the Church in Egypt. With the parliamentary election coming up this year (and a presidential race in 2011), in the eyes of supporters of the Church, this crisis has demonstrated the perils of “too much judicial independence” and the benefits of the current political order
Regardless of whether the court is robbing the Church of its religious freedom (as the Church claims) or whether the Church is robbing its members’ of their individual rights (as the court claims), these developments present a huge setback for advocates of meaningful political change in Egypt. This episode may have confirmed a belief among Egypt’s Copts that change, one that Mohamed ElBaradei and his supporters can believe in, is no friend of the Church. In other words, the court’s ruling, the reasoning goes, is but a taste of the uncertainties with which the Coptic Church might have to grapple if Egyptian politics become truly competitive (and, by implication, truly unpredictable).
It is worthy to note that a few weeks after ElBaradei met with Pope Shenouda III last April, news reports stated that Ahmed Ezz, a high-ranking NDP official, sought the Pope’s support in this year’s parliamentary election. If the Pope was ever toying with the idea of assuming neutrality in the upcoming political battles between the NDP and its challengers, I’ve got a feeling that the latest crisis will leave him room for only one option, namely taking the side of the political status quo and its apologists. Divorcing two people can be messy, but divorcing politics and religion is often even more so.