Egypt’s topmost Islamic institution, al-Azhar, has issued a fatwa that would practically mean that the five-year-old boy Shenouda who was found as a two-day-old infant in a Cairo church and was adopted by Christian parents, is a Christian. “Fatwa” is an Islamic legal opinion.
The fatwa, which was posted on Al-Azhar Fatwa Global Center [azhar.eghttps://www.azhar.eg › fatwacenterمركز الأزهر العالمى
“A query was received by al-Azhar Fatwa Global Center asking about the religion of the infant found in a church.
“Reply: In the name of Allah and His Prophet …
“Islamic Ulamaa (scholars) have had various opinions on this issue. The opinion which al-Azhar is inclined to embrace is one of al-Hanafi scholars that a child found in a church by a non-Muslim follows the religion of the person who found him.
“The Hanafi scholars declared in their books that: ‘If found in a village of Dhimmis [Dhimmi is a non-Muslim living under Muslim rule] or in a church, the one found is Dhimmi.’ The same reply applied in case the founder was Dhimmi.”
Al-Azhar’s reply cited the reference of the fatwa.
The fatwa should make it possible for a court of law to rule that Shenouda be handed to his Christian adoptive foster parents from whom he was taken and placed in an orphanage. The move was based on a norm that considers any unidentified child a Muslim, and also on a norm that indicates a Muslim child cannot be raised by a Christian family.
On Saturday 18 March 2023, the Administrative Court of Egypt’s State Council declined to rule in the lawsuit filed by the adoptive parents of five-year-old Shenouda to regain custody of the boy. The court attributed its decision to lack of jurisdiction on the subject matter. It explained that it lacks the jurisdiction to rule on returning the boy to the Christian couple who had raised him as a two-day-old infant till he was four years old, or to reverse the decision by the authorities to assign him Islam as a religion.
The heartbreaking case of five-year old Shenouda, taken away from the arms of his adoptive parents and placed in an orphanage, has been the focus of Egyptian public opinion—and outrage—for more than a year now. It has also essentially raised disturbing questions, on the public and official levels, regarding adoption and foster care in Egypt.
Last January, Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) officially demanded that Shenouda should be returned to his foster parents. Moushira Khattab who heads the NCHR said that taking the child from the family with whom he lived for four years and placing him in an orphanage was a glaring violation of the philosophy and text of Article 80 of the Egyptian Constitution, also of the Child Law, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the minimal standard child’s rights.
NCHR said that the case of Shenouda must be resolved in a manner that fulfils the ultimate good for the child as in being brought up in a loving family not an orphanage. The human rights council said that the court case should not stand in the way of the right of the child to enjoy a decent life in the arms of the family that raised him for the five years of his life.
NCHR assigned its legislative committee with looking into proposals of legislative and procedural measures needed to return Shenouda to his foster parents.
Shenouda’s story, which has become a public opinion case and raised huge concerns over the issues and norms of adoption and foster care in Egypt, started some five years ago in a Cairo church where a baby was found, apparently abandoned by his biological mother.
The priest decided to hand the infant to a couple who had been childless for 29 years, and who desperately desired a child. The couple were elated to have the little boy to care for and bring up as their own; they applied for a birth certificate for him and gave him their name: Shenouda Farouq Fawzy Boulos. They had Shenouda baptised, and raised him as a Christian grounded in church for four years during which they were an indescribably happy, loving family.
Mr Boulos’s niece, however, realised that Shenouda’s legal name as the son of Mr Boulos made him her uncle’s legal inheritor, thus excluding her from the inheritance; she made a claim to the police that the boy was not Mr Boulos’s son but had been trafficked. Egyptian law outlaws adoption, in accordance with Islamic sharia, but allows takaful—literally “care”, in this case foster care—but children cannot be given their foster parents’ names nor can they legally inherit their money or belongings; they can only receive “gifts” to any amount from their foster parents.
The prosecution opened an investigation with the Bouloses, in which tests proved Shenouda was no child of theirs. Yet the prosecutor recognised that the matter was absolutely well intentioned, so made no charges against Mr Boulos. The prosecutor ordered the child to be taken from his care and handed to Dar al-Orman Orphanage. Why? Because, according to the law, any unidentified child is considered Muslim, and cannot be put in the care of a Christian family. His name was officially changed from the Coptic “Shenouda” to the more neutral “Youssef” (Joseph). This was in February 2022.
Following unsuccessful attempts to regain custody of Shenouda, the Bouloses’ predicament finally found its way to social media. The story went viral, with the foster parents’ palpable pain at losing their son breaking hearts. They described their loss and grief in tragic reality. The heartbreak was compounded by fears for the innocent child who had been taken from the warm, caring arms of his parents and put in an orphanage. Orphanages in Egypt have a notorious reputation of being abusive, exploitative, squalid places.
On social media, the public—Muslims as well as Christians—expressed immeasurable sympathy and support for Shenouda and the Bouloses. Many demanded that the law should be changed to allow adoption for Christians, since Christianity allows adoption. There were pleas that the boy should be given back to his foster parents to live in the love and security he had known with them. Numerous bloggers and public figures called for the case to be treated a a “humanitarian” rather than a legal case.
A number of lawyers and legal consultants offered to defend the case of Shenouda and his foster parents in court, many referencing Egyptian law which includes no item whatsoever that says an unidentified child is Muslim. Basing on that fact, and on the fact that the two-day-old baby had been found inside a church, there should be no legal impediment by his being raised by a Christian family.
Lawyer Naguib Gabrail who heads the Egyptian Union for Human Rights, submitted an official request to North Cairo Prosecution to reopen Shenouda’s case. The prosecution responded positively and, on 3 October heard Mr Gabrail who confirmed he would present witnesses to testify beyond doubt that the child had been found in church as a newborn.
Following the recent court ruling, the lawyers defending the adoptive parents said this was not the end of the road; they would contest the ruling before the Supreme Administrative Court. Now they have al-Azhar’s fatwa to back their claim.
23 March 2023
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