Friday 22 July 2011
It is time for churches to use their influence to reform family law in the Middle East.
“We cannot wait for politicians to sort things out, we have got to make a difference ourselves,” concluded Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, at the conference on Christians in the Holy Land co-hosted at Lambeth Palace with archbishop Vincent Nichols, the head of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales.
As they explored ways to support Christians in the Middle East, I sent a query to Lambeth Palace asking why Anglicans in Jerusalem convert in order to get divorced. The reply from the press office was disappointing: “Each province has its own canon law, so the archbishop wouldn’t have any jurisdiction over this in another province … ”
Yet it is time that foreign churches, as well as sending money and priests to the Middle East, used their influence to reform family law in the region. Who will bring pressure to bear to modernise the dense muddle of Christian personal status laws in the Middle East? The majority of the 14 million Arab Christians there cannot divorce. Many are locked into dead marriages – or convert to another religion so they can divorce.
In Egypt, divorce is near impossible for Copts. Conversions to Islam for divorces have ignited underlying tensions with Muslims. Last May sectarian violence left 15 people dead and a church in flames in a Cairo suburb after a 23-year-old Coptic woman who had become a Muslim to end an abusive marriage was held in a church.
Since the yes vote for divorce in Malta, the media have said that the Philippines is now the only country without divorce. However, as Tunisia and Turkey are the sole countries in the Middle East and north Africa with civil family laws, many Christians in the region cannot divorce. Citizens are restricted to the religious laws of their faith.
If an Arab couple’s marriage has broken down, the court they attend will be usually be run by a qadi, a bishop, a metropolitan, a priest or a church-appointed official. While sharia law for divorce in many Muslim countries has been modified by governments, in Israel reform was initiated by qadis. Yet divorce has not been made easier for Christians.
In Israel, Christians come under 10 personal status codes: Latin Catholic, Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Chaldean, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Armenian. Some can divorce; others cannot. Some codes give equality; others do not.
In the Holy Land, Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans can only separate; to remarry they first have to convert to Greek Orthodox or Islam to obtain a divorce. Annulment is possible, but there are only about five cases finalised in the region annually. Converts for divorce, though, are welcomed by the Greek Orthodox church. Metropolitan Cornelius, the Greek Orthodox judge in Jerusalem, has said the majority of divorces he handles are for former Catholics.
Jonathan Kuttab, a distinguished Christian lawyer in Jerusalem, confirms that Palestinian Christians have fewer legal options to divorce than Muslims and says conversions are often secret: “Only close friends might know. You can still have your Christmas tree; conversion often has nothing to do with faith. Some think: ‘I will become a member of another tribe which allows divorce, I will return to my church if they let me.'”
But if Arab Christians had the same legal rights as their Muslim neighbours and fellow Christians in the west, there would be no need for conversions.