Pope Shenouda warns Copts that marriage with Jehovah's Witnesses is ground for excommunication, divorce

CAIRO, Egypt - The head of the Coptic Orthodox Church criticized the Jehovah's Witness faith and said a Copt's conversion to the sect was a ground for divorce, Egypt's Middle East News Agency reported on Friday.

Pope Shenouda III said conversion to the Jehovah's Witness faith was a ground for divorce within his church. The only other ground for divorce is adultery.

The Coptic church allows people of other Christian denominations to intermarry, but disapproves of their divorce, which still can be achieved if taken to the courts.

Copts marrying Muslims, who make up most of Egypt's 68 million population, are also excommunicated.

Speaking in his weekly lecture, the 78-year old patriarch said Jehovah's Witnesses have been active in Egypt for years and have grown more active recently. The faith is "independent and unrelated to all the monotheistic religions," MENA reported him as saying.

"Jehovah's Witnesses have been rejected by all Christian groups," he added.

Church officials and Shenouda's office staff were unavailable for comment Friday. The church is hosting a regular retreat outside Cairo.

Shenouda has been waging a campaign against dissident groups within the church. On July 4, he excommunicated 13 clerics for contesting his authority. The pope accused the clerics, including Deacon Atef Mikhail and a monk, of making claims they were in direct contact with God.

The Jehovah's Witnesses, who have 6 million practicing members worldwide, is a millennialist sect that began in the United States in the 19th century. The sect mandates doorstep proselytizing and its followers routinely knock on doors and ask to talk about religion. They often offer biblical tracts and say they accept donations but do not ask for them.

Shenouda, speaking on Wednesday, said Orthodox Copts should obey the religious leadership and principles of the 2,000-year-old church.

Copts make up less than 10 percent of the population in Egypt, where Islam is the state religion, but the Coptic community worldwide is estimated at 27 million.