It is not enough that the Egyptian government facilitates persecution of the Copts, Egypt's indigenous Christian minority. Now the government is interfering directly with the church's autonomy concerning doctrine. According to the Assyrian International News Agency:
The head of the Coptic Church in Egypt has rejected a court ruling that orders the church to allow divorced Copts to remarry in the church. In a press conference held on Tuesday June 8, Pope Shenouda [III], reading from the statement issued by the Holy Synod's 91 Bishops, including himself, said: "The Coptic Church respects the law, but does not accept rulings which are against the Bible and against its religious freedom which is guaranteed by the Constitution." He went on to say "the recent ruling is not acceptable to our conscience, and we cannot implement it." He also said that marriage is a holy sacrament of a purely religious nature and not merely an "administrative act."
Though little reported in the West, this issue is rapidly boiling over. There is even talk that, if he does not submit to the court's ruling, the pope will (once again) be imprisoned. What is behind such unprecedented governmental interference with the Coptic Church's autonomy?
Reading Egypt's national newspaper, Al Ahram, one gets the impression that, by trying to make divorce and remarriage easier for Copts, the Egyptian government is attempting to "liberalize" Coptic society—only to be challenged by an antiquated pope not open to "reform." It quotes one Copt saying that the "Pope's limiting divorce and remarriage to cases of adultery is unfair. It is against human nature." Even the manager of the Centre for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance claims that his position "exposes Pope Shenouda's desire to impose his will over the Christian community" (a curious statement, considering that some 10,000 Copts recently demonstrated in support of the pope, and that the Catholic and Orthodox churches—which guide some 1.5 billion Christians—hold similar views on divorce and remarriage).
At any rate, lest the reader truly think that the Egyptian government is becoming more "liberal," there are a few important facts to remember:
First, according to the Second Article of the Egyptian Constitution, Sharia law—one of, if not the most draconian law codes to survive the Medieval period—is "the principal source of legislation." This means that any number of measures contrary to basic human rights are either explicitly or implicitly supported by the Egyptian government, including polygamy, the obstruction of churches, and institutionalized discrimination against non-Muslims and females in general. Put differently, Sharia law can be liberal—but only to male Muslims, who (speaking of marriage and divorce) can have up to four wives, and divorce them by simply uttering "I divorce you" thrice (even via "text messaging").
Moreover, the Egyptian government—again, in accordance to Sharia law—prevents Muslims from converting to Christianity. Mohammad Hegazy, for instance, tried formally to change his religion from Muslim to Christian on his I.D. card—yes, in Egypt, people are Gestapo-like categorized by their religion—only to be denied by the Egyptian court. (Many other such anecdotes abound). In other words, while the Egyptian government portrays itself as "modernizing" the church's "archaic" position on divorce and remarriage, it—the government, not Al Azhar, nor some radical sheikhs, nor yet the Muslim mob—prevents (including by imprisonment and torture) Muslims from converting to Christianity.
As for those who accuse Pope Shenouda of behaving no better than "closed-minded" radicals, consider: he is not forcing a law on individual Copts; he is simply saying that, in accordance to the Bible (e.g., Matt 5:32), and except in certain justifiable circumstances (e.g., adultery) Copts cannot remarry in the church: "Let whoever wants to remarry to do it away from us. There are many ways and churches to marry in. Whoever wants to remain within the church has to abide by its laws."
If this still sounds a tad "non-pluralistic," know that at least Copts have a way out: quit the church. No such way out for Muslims: Sharia law—Egypt's "primal source of legislation"—mandates death for Muslims who wish to quit Islam.
Nor has the inherent hypocrisy of the government's position been missed by Egyptians: "The Pope evaded answering a question presented by a reporter in the press conference on whether the court would dare order Al Azhar [Egypt's highest Islamic authority] to agree to a Muslim marrying a fifth wife and not only four, comparing it to the interference of the Court in the Bible teachings through its recent ruling." A good question, indeed.
Finally, the grandest oddity of this situation is the fact that, for all its inhumane practices, Sharia law does, in fact, permit dhimmis to govern their communities according to their own creeds, a fact not missed by the pope himself, who "pointed to Islamic Law, which allows religious minorities to follow their own rules and customs."
In short, the Egyptian government is behaving even more intolerantly than its medieval Muslim predecessors who, while openly oppressive of Christians, at least allowed the latter to govern their own, personal affairs according to Christian doctrine. As Pope Shenouda declared at the emergency Holy Synod, "the ruling must be reconsidered, otherwise this will mean that the Copts are suffering and that they are religiously oppressed."
Indeed, when Copts are violently persecuted by Muslims, the government claims that it cannot control the actions of a minority of "extremists." However, now that the Egyptian government is personally tampering with the church's ability to live according to Christian doctrine, what more proof is needed that it seeks to subvert Coptic society and is therefore an enabler of Coptic persecution?
Raymond Ibrahim is associate director of the Middle East Forum, author of The Al Qaeda Reader, and guest lecturer at the National Defense Intelligence College.