Screaming against the Egyptian Coptic church over divorce

Official spokesman of the Coptic Church, Father Boules Halim, said the ordination of the pope was not open to discussion

Sonia Farid

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Egyptians associate the word “tamarod,” Arabic for “rebellion,” with the campaign launched in 2013 to topple President Mohamed Mursi. Now, the name is bestowed upon an unprecedented movement calling for the resignation of Pope Tawadros II, head of the Egyptian Coptic Church. The campaign was launched by a group called Al-Sarkha (The Scream), which demands reform of the Coptic Personal Status Law, particularly regarding permission to divorce.

This is a challenge to the authority of the pope, who is to remain in his position for life, and shows how vocal opponents of church policies have become. Ishak Francis, founder of the group and the campaign, said the idea came to him after the church insisted on ignoring the demands of Copts and refused to change the Personal Status Law.

“The church claims it’s looking into our problems, but it doesn’t keep its promises. Had any progress been noticeable, this campaign wouldn’t have started and gained momentum,” he said, adding that he has so far collected 7, 562 signatures in Cairo alone, including 10 from Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the seat of the pope. Francis said the pope had repeatedly made fun of Copts, including himself, who demand a reform.

“The pope even started turning in his critics to the police,” he said, referring to Adel Sedki, who was detained by priests in the cathedral then taken to the police station and charged with “disrupting security” after leading a delegation that attempted to talk the pope into changing the law. Francis dismissed claims that he was part of a conspiracy against the Coptic Church.

“Whenever faced with our demands, the church claims there’s a conspiracy instead of listening to our grievances and attempting to solve them.” Francis added that the church’s decision to make adultery the only legitimate cause for divorce is not based on the Bible or the teachings of Christ. Francis criticized the pope for other matters that he saw as detrimental to the Coptic Church.

“He accepts the baptism of Catholics, is trying to coordinate Easter date with other sects, and has been busy with visits to Europe and the United States while neglecting his own people.” In response to a question about the impossibility of deposing the pope, Francis replied that “nothing is impossible.”

No-confidence vote

The Christian Youths Movement for Orthodox Copts said the no-confidence vote that the Tamarod campaign seeks is not applicable to the pope, since he is “divinely chosen” and not a government official. “A vote of no confidence can apply to a president,” said Christian Youths founder Nader Sobhi. “In the church, it might be applicable to priests who prove inefficient since they’re chosen by human beings.”

Sobhi questioned the validity of the signatures the movement claims to have collected. “If the forms don’t have the national ID numbers of citizens and their signatures, they don’t count,” he said. Sobhi threatened to send the movement’s members to jail if the forms proved to be fake. “We’ll make sure to carefully examine those forms and contact the signatory to ensure their authenticity.”

Deposing the pope is also seen as unthinkable by Copts who demand reform of the Personal Status Law and who have personally suffered from restrictions on divorce. The League of Personal Status Victims, which includes leading critics of the divorce law who have for years been lobbying to change it, slammed The Scream’s Tamarod campaign for “the absurdity of its demands.” The league’s leader Hani Ezzat al-Masry said the papal seat should remain above all disputes in the church.

“The pope is a red line, and the stability of his position is an integral part of the stability of the church and Egypt as a whole,” he said. “Our problem is only with procrastination and mismanagement, but has nothing to do with the pope.” Masri called the Tamarod campaign members “traitors” and “agents of foreign powers,” and accused “forces of darkness inside the church” of trying to create a rift between the church and state.

Divine choice

Official spokesman of the Coptic Church, Father Boules Halim, said the ordination of the pope was not open to discussion. “The pope is chosen by the clergy and representatives of the congregation, and most important of all by God through the continuous praying and fasting of the entire church until the names of candidates for the papacy are revealed,” he said.

“The rules of the church stipulate that the pope remains in his seat for all his life, and no violation of such rules is accepted.” Halim added that the vast majority of Copts, both clergy and laymen, would never accept a campaign aimed at deposing the pope, who is “the father of all Copts.”

Nader al-Serafi, founder of the reformist Copts 38 Coalition - named after the 1938 law that allowed divorce for nine reasons, including chronic illness, impotence, abandonment and irreconcilable differences - said the idea of deposing the pope is not new to the Coptic Orthodox Church.

“It happened in 1954, and took a more violent turn when members of the group called the Society of the Coptic Nation kidnapped Pope Yousab II, who they charged with corruption,” Serafi said, adding that the pope was then forced to sign his resignation and new papal elections were held. “There are many similarities between both cases, mainlythat both popes were victims of a conspiracy that took advantage of the turmoil through which the country was going.”

Serafi underlined the intervention of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser in favor of church laws with the arrest of members of the rebellious group. “That’s why I think the ball is in the court of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who needs to intervene to end this fray.”

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