CAIRO: The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) has welcomed a court decision granting a Christian woman whose husband converted to Islam, custody of their children.
While describing Monday’s Cassation Court verdict as “a small step forward in a press statement issued yesterday, the rights group says that “a big opportunity was missed by the court.
“The court…missed an unprecedented opportunity to end the discriminatory policy which currently forcibly changes Christian children’s religious affiliation in official documents when their father converts to Islam, the press statement reads.
The Cassation Court verdict was issued in response to an appeal lodged by the public prosecutor’s against the September 2008 ruling by the Alexandria Appeals Court that Camilia Lotfy, a Christian, should lose custody of her 14-year-old twin boys Andrew and Mario after their father converted to Islam.
The public prosecutor had brought the case pursuant to a request lodged by Lotfy and EIPR lawyers.
EIPR says that the Cassation Court ruling introduces a “minor positive amendment to current law, by affirming for the first time the right of a Christian or Jewish mother (referred to in Islam as People of the Book) to retain custody of her child until the age of 15 – as is laid down in Egypt’s personal status law – even where the child’s father converts to Islam.
In previous cases, EIPR says, the Cassation Court had granted custody to Muslim fathers when the child turns seven, pursuant to the Hanafy tradition which holds that this is the age of “religious maturity.
The court accepted the public prosecutor’s argument that before depriving Lotfy of custody of her sons, the Alexandria appeals court should have provided justifications for the decision rather than merely relying on the argument that seven is the age of religious maturity.
However, EIPR are critical of the court’s holding that a child under the age of 15 may be removed from his mother’s custody where there exist “fears about the child’s faith stemming from his mother’s upbringing of the child.
“This will allow ex-spouses and family courts to bypass the Cassation Court ruling and continue to remove Christian children from their mother’s custody without regard for the child’s best interests, EIPR says.
The court also rejected the public prosecutor’s argument that children over the age of seven should be allowed to choose their own religion, relying on previous verdicts in which it held that when a parent converts to Islam the faith of his or her children should automatically change because Islam “is the best religion.
“The Cassation Court had an unprecedented opportunity to…reconcile Islamic law principles with the State’s legal obligation to guarantee the rights of all its citizens and prevent discrimination against them, EIPR director Hossam Bahgat is quoted as saying in the press statement.
“The court unfortunately decided to adopt a conservative interpretation which grants legitimacy to discrimination and supports the continuation of violations in the name of Islam, Bahgat continued.
EIPR urges the government to end this policy of discrimination by granting children over seven the right to choose their own religion in amendments to the Personal Status Law currently in the drafting process.