- 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.

The result, critics warn, is that the civil state and secular laws have diminishing support.

“The Copts entered the church and never left,” said Kamal Zakhir, co-founder of a secular movement that advocates for Coptic civil rights. “And the state is happy since it is a comfortable arrangement for all parties concerned.”

The situation for marriage was different in the first half the 20th century. Then, rules drawn up by Coptic secularists allowed divorce for a range of reasons, including abandonment and mental disorders. But Shenouda negated the rules as a violation of the Bible.

There is no civil marriage in Egypt, so marriages get registered with the government through a priest — and to divorce, couples must go through the church first. If the church refuses, a couple can turn to the civil courts. Usually, the courts back church law — but not always. The new law would close that option.

The church allows for annulments, but almost always only in cases in which the marriage was not consummated. In most cases, the church also bans remarriage for divorced couples.

The church has played down the problems posed by the divorce ban. In recent TV interviews, Bishop Bola, the church official authorized to sign divorce or remarriage permits, said the number of marital disputes among Copts don’t exceed 4,000 cases a year, without specifying whether the number refers to divorces granted or to those seeking divorce.

Mr. Gibrail says the number of Christian divorce cases that have gone to civil court has climbed to 12,000 a year, from 4,000 a year in the 1990s.

The murder of Ibrahim was a wake-up call for the small circle of Coptic reform activists. They formed a Facebook group called “support Copts’ right to divorce” and staged a small protest in downtown Cairo warning that a case like Ibrahim’s might occur once again if no civil alternative is available.

“This new law is a terror law,” one activist, Amira Gamal, told the Associated Press.

However, their call faded among the wider Christian public’s absolute support of the church.

In May, hundreds of Copts protested for three days in Cairo’s main cathedral against recent civil court rulings giving two Coptic men permission to remarry, in a challenge to church rules. The government then proposed the new law in response to assuage the church.

Waving pictures of a red heart wrapped in a cross, protesters chanted, “We are all behind the pope in rejecting the court that violates our beliefs.”

Cloaked in black mourning dress and head scarf, Ibrahim’s mother, Mariam Labib, 50, might be the only one repenting the decision to block her daughter’s divorce.

“I regret it,” Mrs. Labib said, sobbing. “This is what is killing me. I didn’t listen to her.”