BEIRUT

Middle East

Secularists call for civil marriage on eve of Egypt protests

CAIRO/BEIRUT: Dozens of Egyptians protested Thursday to demand the introduction of civil marriages, ahead of calls for one million people to join a protest today by secular activists unhappy with the way the military council has been running Egypt since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February.

Protesters – Coptic Christians as well as Muslims – want the parliament elected in September to adopt a law to to allow civil marriages.

Currently, Egyptians follow the law of their religion when it comes to marriage and divorce.

The Coptic Church only allows divorce in very exceptional circumstances, forcing some to convert to Islam to obtain a legal separation.

Muslim women are not allowed to marry Christian men, unless they convert to Islam.

Today civil marriages are limited to Egyptians marrying foreigners.

Cases of conversion have sparked tensions and even clashes between the two communities.

“It usually starts with a personal problem and then transforms into a major problem,” said Karima Kamal, author of “The Coptic Divorce.”

On May 7 clashes erupted in the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba, an overcrowded maze of residential buildings and shops, that left 12 dead and 52 injured.

Muslims had attacked the Coptic Saint Mena church in Imbaba in a bid to free a Christian woman they alleged was being held against her will because she wanted to convert to Islam.

But a week later, the young woman at the center of the clashes, Abeer Talaat Fakhry, was arrested and charged with polyandry.

She was living with her Christian husband in the southern city of Assiut when she ran away from home, converted to Islam and “married” a Muslim.

There have been a number of cases in which unhappy women have left their husbands, converted to Islam and “married” Muslims, but those marriages are not recognized by law.

Coptic Christians, who account for up to 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people, complain of discrimination and have been the target of numerous attacks over the years.

Meanwhile, ahead of planned protests to demand a fast-track transition from a military to civil administration, a new party was formed.

Egypt’s electoral commission granted a licence to a new liberal party founded by telecom magnate Naguib Sawiris ahead of key polls in September, state media reported Thursday.

The Free Egyptians Party said it would work for a civil state and promote freedom of faith.

“This secular party looks to a modern Egypt, a civil state, based on citizenship … which respects all religions,” said politburo member Mohammad Hamed. He added that Egypt should in the future “separate between the state and religion.”

The party, which boasts some 65,000 members, plans to contest 50 percent of the seats in September’s legislative elections.

The Free Egyptians Party is one of a handful of political groups born after the uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak in February.

The country’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, last month announced the legalization of its “non-theocratic” Freedom and Justice Party. 

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 08, 2011, on page 9.

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