Egypt film in Christian divorce row

Cairo, Egypt - A film recently opened in Cairo has revived a controversy about the depiction of Copts in Egyptian drama.

The film, called One-Nil, tells the story of a Christian woman who is granted a divorce but cannot remarry because of the strict rules of the Egyptian Coptic Church.

The film is the latest in a series of dramatic works which focus on Christian issues and characters.

Starring Elham Shahin and Khaled Abou El Naja, the movie deals with the social circumstances of the Egyptian middle class.

Within its plot and subplots, the film follows the tragic story of the heroine who wants to remarry.

She rejects a solution proposed by her lawyer that would allow her to divorce and get married again - convert to Islam - and instead conducts an illicit affair with the hero played by El Naja.

The rules of the Coptic Church prohibit its members from getting a divorce, with two exceptions: if one party proves adultery by the other or if one of the two parties converts to another religion.

Critics say the film slanders Christian marriage.

Najib Gabriel, a lawyer, submitted an application to court to stop the film from being shown, although he later retracted it.

Mr Gabriel told BBC that he believed the film was "a message to the Church to amend the Holy Book, which is unimaginable, or to encourage the 4,000 divorced Coptic women in Egypt to rebel against the Coptic Pope".

The film's producers defend the work by saying it does not demand anything of the Church and that they merely wish to draw attention to the predicament of some Egyptian Christian women.

Sharp criticism

The film is not the first of its kind to cause controversy.

About eight years ago a dispute raged when a TV drama series entitled Time of Roses depicted a Christian woman married to a Muslim man.

This subject has become highly sensitive and has led to sectarian violence in many Egyptian areas.

But it was another film entitled I Love Cinema, whose writer and producer were both Christians, which was the most controversial.

Its plot was considered by some to be critical of very religious Coptic Christians, who fast for about 200 days a year.

The film was also criticised for shooting some of its scenes in a non-Coptic church although it was meant to depict a Coptic church.

Yusuf Sidhum, the editor of Watany newspaper, who takes a particular interest in Coptic affairs, says that artists' freedom of expression cannot be curbed.

While a movie cannot be expected to provide solutions to complex issues such as divorce among Copts, he believes an artist's freedom to focus on social problems must not be limited.

"I cannot understand how an artistic work can be proscribed under the pretext of respect for the feelings of a few people. If we allowed ourselves to use respect for feelings to stop any artistic work, all forms of innovation and art would dry up," he says.

The issue then is artistic freedom versus respect for the feelings of the few at a time charged with sectarian tension.