It appears that 2008 is not ringing in any new beginning for Copts, but is rather proceeding with a bitter replay of the 2007 dilemmas. Last year the 13-year-old Christian twins Andrew and Mario Medhat Ramsis were the talk of Egypt since they had been officially considered by their school as Muslims and were hence required to study and sit for Islamic education examinations as an automatic consequence of their father’s conversion to Islam. Their Christian mother took their case to court demanding that the twins remain in her custody—which would allow them to remain as Christians if they chose to—following a preliminary court ruling that they be handed to their Muslim father. As for the twins, they insisted on remaining Christian, to the point of preferring to fail their exam and repeat the school year rather than give up their religion. Even though the Education Minister issued a decision to have them promoted to the following class, the court has delayed ruling in their case pending investigation on their father’s conversion.
This year’s case concerns the 12-year-old Christian girl Ashraqat and her 8-year-old sister Maria whose Christian mother Amal Mounir was ordered by the Family Court to hand them over to their Muslim convert father Wafiq Gohar in order for him to bring them up as Muslims. The father had married the mother according to the Coptic Orthodox creed in 1986 and they had four children. Two of these are today young men above 18 and thus legally free to choose their religion, and the other two are Ashraqat and Maria. The court ruling declared that: “Since the two girls are more than seven years old—the age in which they are expected to understand and rationalise religion—and since the plaintiff fears that if they remain in their mother’s custody they would cherish a religion other than Islam, eat foods [pork] that are banned in Islam, and go to church, the court has ruled in favour of the father, granting him custody of the two girls.”
The legal reasoning cites that the law grants a mother custody of her children till they are 15, following which a child is given the choice of which parent he or she wishes to live with until the child is of age or until the daughter gets married. The law does not pre-require that the custodian mother should be Muslim; it only requires that she be “rational and able to faithfully take care of the child”. The law, however, stipulates that the custody of a non-Muslim mother over Muslim children should be dropped if the child is of an age in which he or she can understand and rationalise religion—this age was estimated to be seven years old—and if it is feared that the child would cherish a religion other than Islam.
The ruling shattered Ms Mounir, the girls’ mother. She insisted the father had demanded custody of the children to evade his financial commitments towards them, and that he used to treat them with the utmost cruelty. He had also been indicted in several cases of forgery and fraud, and this was why he decided to convert, she said. He even threatened, she claimed, to place the girls in an Azhari [Islamic] orphanage since he personally cannot take care of them.
As for Ashraqat and Maria, they were in tears at the ruling. Ashraqat said their father was an alcoholic and, when under the effect of alcohol, he would beat them and their mother. They used to escape to their maternal grandfather’s until he died and there was no one they could go to and they had to bear their father’s cruelty.
The lawyer Ramsis Raouf al-Naggar who represents the mother described the ruling as “unjust, corrupt and in violation of the Constitution and the law.” He has already contested the ruling. Peter al-Naggar who is also a lawyer said that the judge yielded to his own personal preference of Islam as a religion instead of basing his ruling upon the law.
Another lawyer, Nagwan Ramadan said that the ruling did not take into consideration the girls’ need for their mother especially during adolescence, neither did it consider that the father had a criminal record, nor that the law grants the mother custody of her children till they are 15 years old. Ms Ramadan called upon the Council of Motherhood and Childhood and the National Women’s Council to take action to save the two girls. She said that this was a case of flagrant manipulation of religions if ever there was one, and that the father should not be permitted to do so for the sake of escaping the alimony case against him.
When ++Watani++ contacted Mr Gohar his sole rejoinder was that he would enforce the court ruling. When he was asked for his comment on forcing his daughters to live with him and to embrace Islam against their wishes he said that he would still enforce the court ruling and that he allowed no one to interfere between him and his daughters.