- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 14, 2010

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt | When Irini Ibrahim, a young Coptic Christian woman, floated the idea of divorce from a husband she said was abusing her, her parents immediately opposed it, reminding her of the biblical injunction, “What God has joined together let no man put asunder.”

So the 25-year-old Ibrahim entered “reconciliation sessions” with her husband, Rizk Kands, moderated by a priest. In April, the priest anointed Ibrahim and Mr. Kands with sacred oil, pronouncing their union healed.

Hours later, Ibrahim’s battered body was found in an Alexandria hotel room the couple had booked for a sort of second honeymoon. Mr. Kands, an Egyptian who also holds U.S. citizenship, fled to the United States, charged by an Alexandria prosecutor of strangling his wife after slamming her against the wall and toilet.

Mr. Kands‘ trial opens Sept. 21. He will be tried in absentia.

The case sparked shock and grief among Egypt’s Coptic Christians, but it did not bring much soul-searching over the Coptic Orthodox Church’s almost total ban on divorce. The ban makes divorce such a taboo among Christians that no matter how bad or unbearable the marriage, ending it is unthinkable in the face of the social shame.

That’s a testament to the dominating influence that the deeply conservative Coptic Church has over its followers, estimated at about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people. The church is one of the oldest in the world, centered in Egypt.

As Egypt’s Muslim majority has grown more religiously conservative over the past three decades, so has its Christian minority, many of whom see the church as a refuge. As a result, the authority of Coptic leader Pope Shenouda III goes almost unquestioned.

The church’s grip on Christians’ personal lives likely will only increase with a bill before Egypt’s Parliament that would bar civil judges from making rulings that contradict church law in personal status cases involving Christians.

Church law currently allows divorce only for three causes: adultery, conversion to Islam or change of denomination. As a result, Copts often have converted to Catholicism or Protestant sects to get out of unhappy marriages. With the church’s endorsement, the new law would close that door, recognizing interdenominational unions.

That, some Christian activists fear, could push more divorce-seeking Copts to convert to Islam. Such conversions in the past have fueled sectarian tensions — even violence — between Muslims and Christians.

In the most recent case, a priest’s wife, Kamellia Zakhir, disappeared in July and reportedly converted to break from her husband — fueling protests from Christians claiming Muslims had kidnapped her and forced her conversion.

After police found Mrs. Zakhir and returned her home, weekly protests erupted this month, this time by Muslims who claimed Christians were holding her against her will and had forced her to renounce Islam.

“I am afraid the situation will be worse than ever and we will witness a mass emigration to Islam with this new law,” said Naguib Gibrail, a prominent Christian lawyer and former judge.

The law also would fortify the virtual state within a state for Christians that the government has allowed the church to build up in the past 40 years, since Pope Shenouda assumed his position. The church sponsors schools, clinics, job opportunities and a generous network of social welfare programs to support the needy and the unemployed.

It’s part of a general trend in Egypt: As the state withdraws from the lives of people, the more the church or Islamic groups fill the gaps and provide services on religious bases.

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