Saturday 9 October 2010
The multi-stranded patriarchal system of religious laws affecting Christians in the Middle East are long overdue for reform
If a couple are divorcing or separating in Damascus the outcome is decided by holy law. It is the same for all Muslims, Christians and Jews in Beirut, Baghdad, Jerusalem or Cairo. With the exception of Turkey, there is no civil family law in the Middle East. Nor are there register offices for marriages or civil courts for divorce. Citizens have to attend courts run by kadis, priests, bishops or rabbis.
Religious laws have exclusive jurisdiction in marriage, divorce, separation, child custody, alimony, maintenance, adoption, guardianship, child custody and division of property. Catholics cannot terminate a marriage unless they find grounds for annulment. Only the Orthodox churches allow divorce.
Even though divorce and remarriage are now tolerated in most parts of the western world, the Christian courts are unlikely to be high on the agenda of the two-week conference of Middle Eastern patriarchs and church leaders which begins in Rome tomorrow. Alarmed at the drop in the number of Christians in the Middle East – from around 20% before the second world war to below 5% – Pope Benedict has convened a regional synod. Much has been written about the problems of Arab Christians in the region, but few analysts look to the multi-stranded patriarchal system of Christian religious laws as a contributory reason for dissatisfaction among its 10-15 million Christians.
Metropolitan Cornelius, who runs the Greek Orthodox church court in Jerusalem, where the majority of Christians are Catholic, said most of the divorce cases he handled were Catholics who had converted only to end a failed marriage.
Jerusalem, like the rest of Israel, has 14 different legal systems covering family law to accommodate the diverse faiths of its citizens. The Jews have one set of laws, so do the Muslims, but the Christian denominations have 10: the codes of the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, the Syrian Orthodox, the Latin Catholics, the Greek Catholics (Melkites), the Maronites, the Chaldeans, the Syrian Catholics, the Armenian Catholics and the Anglicans.
As opposed to the sharia, Druze and rabbinical courts, which are supervised by the ministry of justice, ecclesiastical courts have full “autonomy”. Judges are appointed by the churches alone. Unlike the Jews and Muslims, Christian courts have no websites. Nor do they publish precedents of cases or judgments, or allow court reporters or members of the public to attend court hearings.
The way Muslims are subjected to sharia law is often regarded with distaste in western society, yet sharia courts in Israel and the West Bank are a beacon of transparency compared to the Christian courts. It is difficult in some areas to even find basic facts such as opening times or costs, precedents, let alone the law used. The system is shrouded in concealment. Women inevitably come off second best.
Article 251 of the Greek Orthodox code states that among the reasons notconsidered grounds for divorce are “swearing and ill-treatment, beating the woman with a stick or lashing her with a whip, disputes between the spouses … a wife’s accusation of her husband with adultery without proof”. Nor do divorced women have an automatic right to retain custody of children if they remarry. A bride can be divorced if the husband does not find her to be a virgin on their wedding night.
While this month’s Middle East synod is much-awaited, so are reforms to change this system – inherited from the Ottoman millet system, which recognised the autonomy of the Christian communities to run their own internal affairs, especially religious and civil matters.