On Coptic Personal Status Laws: State is Responsible for Protecting Right to Marry and Found a Family

Press Release

27 May 2008

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) today called on the state to assume its legal responsibility to protect and fulfill the right of all citizens to marry and found a family, a right enshrined in the Egyptian constitution and international human rights law. Commenting on the ongoing debate over proposed amendments to Coptic Orthodox personal status regulations, the EIPR said that state officials must immediately create alternatives that guarantee citizens their right to make decisions concerning their private and family life, regardless of their religion or the stance of religious institutions.

Recently leaders of the Coptic Church announced their intention to amend the Coptic Orthodox personal status regulations, issued by the Milli Council in 1938. The amendments will impose further restrictions on Copts' right to divorce and remarry. If the amendments are approved, they will close the door to thousands of Copts who have turned to family courts for a divorce based on the 1938 regulations after the Church refused to allow them to divorce or remarry.

"State officials have no right to wash their hands of the problems, needs, and suffering of thousands of Coptic citizens who are demanding no more than their basic right to marry and create a family," said Hossam Bahgat, director of the EIPR. "The Church is entitled to its interpretation of religious texts, but the state has the right—indeed, the duty—to provide an alternative to those Copts who disagree with this interpretation."

The EIPR urged state officials and parliamentarians to take immediate steps towards establishing an optional family law system and making it available to all citizens regardless of their religion or belief. This new legal system must uphold the principles of justice and equality and provide the necessary legal protections to all members of the family, particularly women and children.

On 1 March, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church must allow Coptic citizens who had obtained a divorce from family courts to remarry. Church leaders have refused to comply with the ruling and instead began revising the 1938 regulations to make it more difficult in the future for family courts to grant divorce to Coptic couples. 

Article 23(b) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Egypt in 1982, holds the state responsible for protecting the right of men and women of legal age to marry and found a family. In addition, Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court found in 1995 that the right to marry falls "within the realms of privacy protected by Article 45 of the Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt, which states that citizens' private lives are protected by law."