Egypt's Kafkaesque Rules For Christian Marriage

Restrictive and sometimes contradictory rules continue to govern issues of marriage and — heaven forbid — divorce for Egyptian Christians.

At a wedding in Cairo
At a wedding in Cairo
Mai Shams El-Din

CAIRO — The process would have been infinitely simpler if Gaber al-Nekhiely were Muslim. But as a Christian, it was only after five years in courts that he finally secured a divorce. That's because for Egypt's Christians, matters related to marriage and separation are handled by the church, which imposes no end of difficult restrictions and operates as a system apart.

Many Christians, as a result, resort to conversion or fabricating claims of adultery, which is the only basis for divorce recognized by the Coptic Orthodox Church. While some are able to obtain a divorce in court, the church does not recognize these rulings, and, as civil marriage is only an option in Egypt for those who marry foreign nationals, many Christians remain unable to remarry. Those who have divorced but are unable to secure remarriage permits from the church have, in some cases, resorted to urfi, unofficial marriage contracts.

Nekhiely, who is a Protestant, married an Orthodox woman in the Coptic Orthodox Church, as the church objects to inter-denominational marriages, unless they happen under its auspices. Unfortunately, the relationship eventually began to fall apart, and in 2008, Nekhiely decided to file for divorce. But as a Protestant married to a Copt, there was a way for Nekhiely to do this: An article in the personal status law enables Christian couples from different denominations to resort to Islamic Sharia in divorce.

"It should have been easy," Nekhiely says. "But I had to bring a document from the Orthodox Church proving that my wife is Orthodox, and the church declined to provide us with that document."

Nekhiely thinks the refusal is a way for the church to punish him for vocally criticizing the church's policies concerning personal status issues. A year after the death of Pope Shenouda III in 2012, he managed to secure the necessary document to finalize his divorce. "I'm an Egyptian citizen who resorted to the legislation of Islamic law to get a divorce," he says. "Why should the church be my guardian, control who I marry, and put me in such a situation?"

Rules of engagement

Christians whose divorces are unrecognized by church authorities and those wanting out of their marriages — faced with the stark choice of fabricating an adultery claim, conversion or remaining in an unhappy marriage — are bracing for a new law to organize issues of personal status.

Drafted by the Coptic Orthodox Church, Egypt's largest Christian church, and featuring amendments presented by Protestant representatives, the legislation will be disappointing to those like Nekhiely who hoped that religious authorities would play less of a role in personal affairs of marriage and divorce.

In the draft law, the Orthodox church proposes that the "impossibility of continuing married life" can serve as a basis for divorce, a condition which would apply to a couple that has been separated for five years, if they have children, or three years, if they don't. In all cases, the church would reserve the authority to issue permits in the manner it sees fit for second marriages for those divorced on the basis of this condition.

Ashraf Anis, the founder of a group called Right to Life that campaigns for the reform of divorce and marriage laws for Coptic Christians, says that the period of separation imposed by the draft law is too long. He also thinks it is discriminatory, as it gives greater privileges to those that do not have children who, after a shorter period of separation, can qualify for divorce.

Anis says that if passed, several of the draft law's articles would violate the Constitution. He points specifically to the church's exclusive right to issue permits for second marriages, as the church can refuse to give second marriage permits to anyone, violating the right to form a family.

But the Constitution also shores up religious authority. Article 2 designates Sharia to be the main source of the country's legislation, while the following article stipulates that the principles of citizens' religions will be the main source of legislation governing their personal affairs.

Further cementing the role of the church in personal affairs, the draft law proposes the establishment of semi-judicial committees at different courts to deal with issues of personal status for Christians. Falling directly under the authority of the church, these committees would be headed by bishops and include clergymen, legal, psychological and social advisors. The Justice Ministry would handle the approval of the formation of these committees.

"Why would we form semi-judicial committees inside courts that are headed by clergymen?" Anis says. "It seems we are back to the old religious courts." In his view, these committees fundamentally violate Christians' right to a fair trial.

Gamil Haleem, the Orthodox church's legal advisor, says that the Egyptian churches will meet in the coming period to agree on the final draft of the legislation that will be presented to the government, which would then pass it to Parliament.

The amendments introduced by Protestant representatives suggest that disagreements may arise, as they propose that all churches acknowledge the marriage of other Christian groups and enable marriages of couples from different denominations. Currently, the Orthodox church only allows members of the same denomination to marry, unless the union happens within the Orthodox church.

Another area of contention is the question of divorce and second marriage, as every church has different procedures. While the Orthodox church allows for divorce in the case of adultery, the Catholic church does not acknowledge divorce at all and names it instead "bodily separation." The Greek Orthodox church allows for divorce with more flexible conditions. Protestant churches in Egypt also do not allow divorce.

And while the Orthodox church proposes a minimum of five years of separation for those with children and three for childless couples, Protestant churches propose that the condition only be applied for those without children and after five years have elapsed. Protestant representatives also state that they would be committed to issuing permits of second marriage for any side wishing to marry again after five years, while the Orthodox church maintains the right to refuse to issue remarriage permits.

Calls for civil marriage

One thing the churches are united on, however, is their opposition to civil marriage. Pope Tawadros II of the Orthodox church previously told Mada Masr that civil marriages contradict the Christian faith.

In the political space that opened in the immediate aftermath of 2011, a number of Christian groups sprang up calling for civil marriage, or at least the reform of divorce and marriage rights and questioning the clerical hierarchy's control of these issues.

The issue of divorce, in particular, was a lightening rod, with public protests against the church staged by groups like Copts 38 and Right to Life. On one occasion, Pope Tawadros II canceled his weekly sermon at St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral when it was disrupted by protesters calling for the right to divorce.

The name of Copts 38 refers to a period when restrictions on the right to divorce were far less rigid. Bylaws adopted in 1938 and drafted by the church allowed for nine grounds for divorce, including adultery, impotence, contagious disease, imprisonment and abuse. But the late Pope Shenouda III judged these conditions to contradict the teachings of Christianity and, in 1971, announced that divorce was permissible only in cases of adultery.

Mina Thabet, a researcher in minorities issues at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedom, explains that Shenouda's decision prompted legal confusion in Coptic communities, as courts continued to divorce Copts according to 1938 bylaws, which Shenouda did not legally amend.

"This meant that Copts would be divorced before the courts, but, when they go to the church to issue a permit for a second marriage, the church refuses, because it does not acknowledge the validity of the divorce," Thabet explains.

The issue came to a head in 2006 when a final ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court obliged Pope Shenouda III to issue a permit for a second marriage to a Coptic man had been divorced in court. The pope, however, refused to apply the ruling.

"The church cannot be committed to something that contradicts the conscience and the teachings of the Bible. We know our religion better, and we will refuse to give a permit for second marriage if the divorce is not based on such teachings," Shenouda said at the time.

The incident propelled Shenouda to amend the bylaws to allow divorce only in cases of adultery, which was approved by the Egyptian government in 2008. Thabet believes that the new draft law is a version of Shenouda 2008 bylaws, with minor changes. A policy paper he wrote for ECRF earlier this year recommends that the 1938 bylaws be reinstated, thereby granting Copts more flexible conditions for divorce.

Ishaq Ibrahim, a religious freedoms researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), explains that adding a new condition to offer a more flexible divorce law is a partial solution to the problem, but it will not resolve the issue completely. "There could be partial facilitation to the issue of divorce, but waiting for three or five years is too much," he said. "The church still holds the right to exclusively issue second marriage permits. The philosophy behind the draft law remains very restrictive to the right to marry and divorce and forming a family."

The current draft law stipulates that only the church's clerical council is entitled to issue second marriage permits to Christians and asserts that the refusal to do so cannot be appealed through the state judiciary, as it is "a religious ecclesiastical decision."

For Ibrahim, the solution rests in the hands of the state, which should "carry its own responsibilities to open the door for civil marriage," saying such a move is the only lasting solution to personal status issues for Egypt's Christians.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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