A Christian mother in Egypt has won custody of her twin sons from her estranged husband, who had converted to Islam and claimed them according to Islamic legal precepts.
The now 15-year-old boys, however, will still be considered Muslims despite their desire to remain Christian.
On June 15 the Egyptian Court of Cassation ruled that Kamilia Gaballah could retain custody of her sons Andrew and Mario, even though the father converted to Islam and the boys' religion also changed as a result.
If the court does not allow them to return to Christianity, the family will open up another court case, said their older brother George Medhat Ramses.
"Up until now the court said they would have the right to choose their faith," said Ramses, 21. "But if they don't, we will start another trial. This is the only way."
The decision overturns a September 2008 ruling by the Alexandria Appeals court that had granted custody of the twins to their father, Medhat Ramses Labib, due solely to his conversion. During this time Gaballah lived in constant fear police would take away her sons.
The ruling also affirmed Article 20 of Egypt's Personal Status Law, which states children should remain with their mother regardless of religion until age 15, over that of the Hanefi School of Islamic jurisprudence, which says that a child must be granted custody to the Muslim father in an inter-religious marriage once he or she becomes 7.
But the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) advocacy group noted that while the court ruled a woman cannot be denied custody of her children solely on her Christian faith if her husband converts, children can still be removed from her home if there are "fears for the child's faith." An ex-husband or his family could easily exploit this clause, the human rights group said.
According to Gaballah, the trial was not a matter of custody rights but was religious in nature from beginning to end.
"My opponent is not only my divorcee; my opponent is everyone who hears this story and wants Andrew and Mario to become Muslims," said Gaballah, according to Copts United advocacy group.
Mario and Andrew turned 15 in June. On their 16th birthday, they must apply for Egyptian identity cards, which factor heavily into Egyptian daily life. Barring another court battle, their religion will still be registered as Muslim.
Because of this predicament, the court verdict that granted the twins' mother full custody only solved half of their problems, said Naguib Gobraiel, a lawyer familiar with the case.
As registered Muslims, they could face harassment while attempting to practice their Christian faith. And while they could marry Christian women, their future children would be registered as Muslims, following the Islamic dictum that children take the religion of their father.
"The court didn't give them the right of freedom to choose their religion," Gobraiel told Compass. "We must ask ourselves how the children are permitted to stay with their mother but must follow the religion of another man."
Until then the family is worried that the court will not allow Andrew and Mario to return to their Christian faith and are taking every precaution. Last Wednesday (June 24) they appealed to the Ministry of Internal Affairs to have their birth certificates state their Christian faith. They had been recently changed to retroactively show the boys' birth status as Islam.
A Longstanding Battle
The controversy began in 2007 when a court ordered the twins to take Islamic education within the Egyptian school system due to the conversion of their estranged father from Christianity to Islam.
The twins refused to take their Islamic religion exam required to pass the next grade. "I am Christian," each boy wrote on a make-up test in July. They turned in the exam with all of the answers left blank.
Their father converted to Islam and remarried in 2002. He changed the religion of his sons to Islam in 2006 and applied for custody even though he had not lived with the family. According to sharia (Islamic law) custody of minor children and influence over their religious status belongs to the Muslim parent.
The case reflects the tension in Egypt between civil and religious law. While Article 47 of Egypt's civil law gives citizens the right to choose their religion, Article II of the Egyptian constitution enshrines sharia as the source of Egyptian law. The same tension has inhibited recent attempts by other converts to change their official religious status from Islam to Christianity.
Rights groups said the court order is good news for Gaballah and the twins, but it does nothing to address discriminatory policies of Egyptian law that attach a child's faith to a parent who chooses to convert to Islam.
"It is regrettable, however, that the highest court of the country chose to treat the symptoms and ignore the root causes of the problem – changing the religious affiliation of Christian children whose parents convert to Islam without the slightest regard for their will or that of their Christian mothers," said Hossam Baghat, director of the EIPR, in a statement.
Gaballah has fought with her ex-husband over alimony support and custody of sons Andrew and Mario in 40 different cases since he left her and converted to Islam so that he could remarry in 1999.