But twins will keep father’s Muslim identity in their records, creating future problems.

LOS ANGELES, July 1 (Compass Direct News) – 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.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Lawyers try to put financial pressure on husband to secure 13-year-old girl’s release.

ISTANBUL, December 16 (Compass Direct News) – After a judge yesterday placed new financial and social pressure on the captors of a Pakistani girl who was kidnapped and converted to Islam, attorneys have guarded optimism they can return her to custody of her Christian parents.

Judge Malik Saeed Ijaz ordered the girl’s husband, Amjad Ali, to pay a dowry of 100,000 rupees (US$1,275) and allow her parents visitation rights, two actions required by typical Pakistani marriage protocol. At press time he had done neither.

The judge gave Saba Masih, 13, the opportunity to talk with her family during yesterday’s hearing, but she remained mostly silent behind her veil, offering only blunt replies.

“I don’t want to see my parents. They are Christians and I am a Muslim,” she said, according to her parents’ attorney.

Her younger sister Aneela Masih, who was also kidnapped but returned to her family three months ago, pleaded with her older sister to return home. The 10-year-old told her that Christmas was coming and she didn’t want her sister to spend it with those “who are not our people.”

Saba Masih appeared at the Multan branch of Lahore’s High Court yesterday along with her Muslim husband and his family. Her parents filed a contempt petition last month against her captors for failing to follow Pakistani marriage protocol.

Islamic law (sharia), however, gives a wife the right to relinquish a dowry. Lawyers said they fear that the Muslim family will pressure Saba Masih to claim this right in order to offset growing financial pressure.

Lawyers hope that if her mother can visit her, it will convince her to leave her husband and come home to the family; her family believes he has threatened her with violence if she attempts to rejoin them.

At Monday’s hearing, Saba Masih still appeared reluctant to return to her family. Relatives said they were praying that she would change her mind and that the captors would lose their influence over her.

“The main thing is Saba must be ready herself to come back,” said her uncle, Khalid Raheel, the family spokesman. “But she isn’t ready to come back yet, and I don’t know how they are convincing her.”

On Wednesday (Dec. 17) the judge is expected to adjourn the case and issue a deed requiring Ali to pay the dowry at the convenience of the Masih family. The judge yesterday threatened Ali with prison time if he failed to carry out this order.

Akbar Durrani, attorney for the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), said the attorneys might try to use Aneela Masih’s testimony of kidnapping to take the case to the Supreme Court if other options fail.


Prostitution Business

The Christian family’s lawyer said the attempt to force Ali to pay a dowry was a tactic to mount financial pressure on Saba Masih’s husband and to convince her to return home. Her family and their lawyers believe she has stayed with her Muslim husband because he and his family have issued death threats.

The Christian family’s chances of winning run against the judicial status quo for Pakistani religious minorities, but the new push comes after a Sept. 9 ruling that returned Aneela Masih to her parents, a rare legal victory for non-Muslims.

“We filed this [contempt] petition so she would come into the court, see her family and hopefully change her statement,” said Durrani of CLAAS. “We also want to put pressure on the Muslim family members because they are afraid of litigation, since they have to pay all these legal expenses.”

Aneela and Saba Masih were kidnapped on June 26 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Their parents say local fruit vendor Muhammad Arif Bajwa and three others kidnapped them in Chawk Munda, a small town in south Punjab.

Saba Masih was married to Ali the next day. Bajwa and Ali registered a case with the police on June 28 for custody of the girls based on their alleged conversion to Islam.

Local residents regard the men as serial kidnappers with connections to a human trafficking ring. The girls’ first defense attorney believed they could have been raped and sold to a brothel.

Ironically, attorneys said, the kidnappers’ alleged desire to exploit Saba Masih may now be the best hope of her returning to her parents, as keeping her has become not lucrative but increasingly costly with court hearings continuing and legal fees multiplying.

“These [kidnappers] don’t have an emotional link to Saba,” Durrani told Compass by phone. “They are in the business of prostitution and only wanted to use these girls for their business.”

Prosecuting attorneys said they have a growing optimism that they can regain custody of Saba Masih, something they thought unlikely two months ago.


Long, Hard Battle

In previous hearings, a judge allowed Saba Masih to choose whether or not she would return to her family, even though Pakistan marriage law requires the approval of legal guardians at the age of 16.

The judge determined that her age was 17 based on her testimony and a report by a medical board pressured by Muslim groups to inflate her age. He did not accept as evidence her birth certificate and baptismal record that showed her age as 13.

Younis Masih and his wife first saw their daughters after their kidnapping at a July hearing. The girls were in the company of 16 Muslims and were said to be under pressure to claim they had converted to Islam.

After Aneela Masih returned to her family in September, she claimed that their captors threatened to kill them and their family if they did not do everything asked of them.

Previously it had been reported that she was raped while in captivity, but there was no medical evidence that she was sexually abused or manhandled, lawyers said.

Her sister appears to be suffering, Durrani said.

“The family has told us that Saba Masih is not in good condition – most of the time she cries and is not satisfied there,” Durrani said.


Recurrent Problem

Kidnapping of Christians in the Muslim-majority nation of 170 million is not uncommon. Many captors believe they will not be convicted if caught due to the penal code’s influence by sharia, which grants non-Muslims second-class status in society.

Every year there are cases of Pakistani Christian children kidnapped, killed or exploited by those who believe their parents are powerless.

Last month a Muslim family in Nankan kidnapped the 7-year-old son of Pakistani Christian Binyamin Yusef, 30, over a land dispute. Two days later police found his son’s body, which showed signs of torture and rape.

Police did not register the case when Yusef initially approached them. CLAAS representatives hope to open court action against the alleged perpetrators.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Muslim kidnappers continue to pressure girls at shelter: ‘Your parents will kill you.’

ISTANBUL, August 20 (Compass Direct News) – A custody battle in Pakistan over two Christian girls kidnapped and allegedly forced to convert to Islam remained inconclusive after a hearing today, with rights advocates for the family suspecting Muslim fundamentalists of pressuring the minors and a medical board.

Judge Malek Saeed Ejaz of the Lahore High Court’s Multan Branch set the next hearing for Sept. 9 after a two-hour proceeding. Lawyers for the Masih family said that if the girls are not returned to their parents at the next hearing they will appeal to the Pakistani Supreme Court.

Until then, Aneela and Saba Masih, 10 and 13 respectively, will remain at Multan’s Dar Ul Rahman women’s shelter, where they have stayed since a July 29 hearing.

Islamic jurisprudence and Pakistani law do not recognize the forced marriages of minors. The judge’s decision to extend the case was based on Saba Masih’s testimony that she is 17 and on a Lahore medical board’s ruling that she is between 15 and 17.

The medical board, however, may have been pressured to declare Saba Masih an adult, lawyers said.

“This is a case of conversion from Christianity to Islam, so we can say there is pressure, especially from fundamentalist groups,” said Aneeqa Maria, legal advocate for the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS)

Rights advocates said the girls themselves may have come under pressure while at the women’s shelter, although they were sent there with the purpose of escaping coercion by the Muslim family that captured them.

The Muslim family continues to threaten the girls at the shelter, said Rashid Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

“They are giving them misinformation regarding their parents, saying, ‘If you return to your parents, they will kill you,’” he said.

The court has not accepted Saba Masih’s baptismal records or birth certificates as evidence of her minor status in previous hearings.

Pakistani law requires females to be at least 16 to marry without permission of legal guardians. A minor cannot marry regardless of his or her religion.

Both sides agree Aneela Masih is a minor and that therefore custody of her cannot be granted to the captor’s family. The lawyers for the defense argue, however, that custody of her should be given to her older sister and not to her Christian parents.

A strict interpretation of Islamic law does not allow non-Muslim parents to have custody of a Muslim child.

The prosecution says there is no proof the girls converted freely to Islam, and that they should be given back to their Christian parents. In fact, the Muslim family’s claim to custody of the girls doesn’t even meet the legal muster of Islamic jurisprudence, Rehman argued.

“There is no example in Islamic history of minor girls who converted to Islam without permission or the presence of their legal guardian,” he said. In Islamic law, “women do not have full capacity to give testimony in court. How is it possible to accept the statement they have embraced Islam?”


Possible Outcomes

Maria of CLAAS speculated that the court would give custody of Aneela Masih to her parents at the Sept. 9 hearing. Since both sides agree she is a minor, the prosecution will argue she doesn’t understand what has been happening and could not have freely chosen to convert.

Rehman said pursuing custody of the older sister would be more difficult.

“It will not be fruitful for us, because Saba herself has claimed she is married,” he said. “She has attained the age of puberty and is claiming to have married by her own choice. She has also claimed she is 17 years old. She will likely be given custody to her Muslim husband.”

If both girls aren’t returned to their Christian parents, then the prosecution plans to appeal to the Pakistan Supreme Court.

An Aug. 6 hearing at the Lahore High Court’s Multan branch ruled that the district medical board of Multan should examine Saba Masih to determine if she was old enough to marry of her own volition. In previous hearings she claimed she was 17.

A crowd of about 20 people gathered at the courthouse today and shouted threats at the Masih family and their lawyers. Among those in the crowd were Islamic scholars from Mufti groups, which have also made threatening telephone calls to CLAAS for trying to give Christian parents custody of Muslim children, Maria said.

The two sisters were kidnapped on June 26 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Their parents say local fruit vendor Muhammad Arif Bajwa kidnapped them in Chawk Munda, a small town in south Punjab.

Saba Masih was married to Amjad Ali, a Muslim, the next day. Bajwa and Ali registered a case with the police on June 28 for custody of the girls based on their alleged conversion to Islam.

Younis Masih, the girls’ father, claimed Ali and his family kidnapped the girls while they were en route to visit their uncle. He only learned of their location after the men filed for custody and summoned Masih to the police station.

In a July 29 hearing, Judge Saghir Ahmed said he did not believe the girls converted to Islam of their own volition and ordered them to be sent to a government women’s shelter so that they could think freely until the Aug. 6 hearing.

The girls’ father has tried to gain custody of his daughters by appealing to Islamic authorities. On July 10 he obtained an edict from Chawk Munda imam Mohammad Abdul Majeed on whether his 13-year-old daughter’s marriage was valid according to Islam.

Majeed replied that a 13-year-old girl’s marriage is valid if she has attained puberty and freely chosen to convert. If Saba Masih’s conversion were coerced, then her marriage would be invalid because Islam does not allow compulsion in religion, he said.

Majeed’s ruling, however, was not accepted in previous hearings since he declined to appear in court and testify.


Kidnapping and Threats

Today’s hearing in Multan came during increased kidnappings of Christian minors and threats against legal activists in Pakistan, a majority-Muslim country of 168 million.

Phone threats from Islamic groups have forced Maria, lawyer for a Christian legal advocacy group and counsel for the Masih family, to go underground for the last two weeks.

CLAAS has come under scrutiny for taking up cases of the forced conversion of kidnapped girls such as the Masih sisters and that of Sonia Younis, 13. On June 24 a Muslim woman in Lahore kidnapped Younis and married her to her son, Mohammead Imran.

When Younis’ parents filed a complaint with a local police station, an investigator returned three days later with a certificate stating Younis had become a Muslim and married Imran. Younis’ parents charged Imran’s parents with kidnapping, but police dismissed it on religious grounds, according to CLAAS.

Kidnappings of non-Muslims are common in Pakistan, where the Christian population is less than 2 percent.

“Generally, because the courts are biased, they give custody to the Muslims,” Maria of CLAAS said. “In many cases the girls are minors. These kinds of cases are similar to others.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Attorney, relative of Christian parents fear they are likely to lose custody of daughters.

ISTANBUL, August 12 (Compass Direct News) – Amid pressure from radical Muslim clerics, a medical board is expected to determine the age of a Christian Pakistani girl allegedly forced to convert to Islam. The medical report on 13-year-old Saba Masih, who married a Muslim man, is due by her Aug. 20 custody hearing.

The custody battle over her and her 10-year-old sister, Aneela Masih – two girls raised as Christians who were kidnapped and allegedly converted to Islam – may be decided on their testimonies even though they contradict court evidence. Saba Masih, married off to the Muslim man after the kidnapping, has twice claimed in court that she is 17 years old – Pakistani law requires females to be at least 16 to marry without permission of legal guardians.

At a hearing last Wednesday (Aug. 6), the Lahore High Court’s Multan branch ruled that the district medical board of Multan will examine Saba Masih to determine if she is old enough to marry of her own volition. Aneela Masih claims to have embraced Islam, though as a minor she cannot legally do so.

The court has refused to accept the girls’ birth certificates or baptism records as evidence for their ages. Under Pakistani law a minor cannot marry regardless of his or her religion.

The two sisters were kidnapped on June 26 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Saba Masih was married to Amjad Ali, a Muslim, the next day, and the kidnappers filed for custody of the girls on June 28 based on their conversion.

In a July 12 ruling, District and Sessions Court Judge Main Naeem Sardar awarded custody of the girls to the kidnappers based on Saba Masih’s testimony that she was 17 and had converted to Islam. He did not accept the girls’ birth certificates as evidence of their ages.

In a July 29 hearing, Judge Saghir Ahmed said he did not believe the girls converted to Islam of their own volition and ordered them to be sent to a government women’s shelter, so that they could think freely until the Aug. 6 hearing.

At that hearing, however, both girls claimed to have embraced Islam, and Saba Masih claimed once again to be 17 and thus able to marry. Judge Saeed Ejaz ordered that she be sent to a medical examination to determine her real age.

Muslim clerics are already threatening the medical board, claiming that since the girls have embraced Islam they should not be returned to the custody of their Christian parents, said Khalid Raheel, the kidnapped girls’ uncle.

“Muslim clerics are threatening the judge. [Saba] said she was 17 because she was threatened,” he said. “[The judge] told the medical officer to get her age checked by the medical board … [but] Muslim clerics are threatening the medical board.”

The medical board will submit its report at the next hearing on Aug. 20.

Rashid Rehman, a lawyer representing the Christian parents, said that if the report says Saba Masih has reached puberty or is between the ages of 16 and 17, then the court will likely award her Muslim husband custody over her – even though her marriage is invalid since she is a minor.

“The law has been amended, and no minor can be contracted into marriage with [guardian or parental] permission or without permission,” he said. “But because of religious pressure, the court can decide otherwise.”

The court cannot grant custody of Aneela Masih to the kidnappers since both sides agree she is 10. Because she reiterated at the August 6 hearing that she had converted to Islam, however, it is not clear if she will be returned to her Christian parents.

According to a strict interpretation of Islamic law, a non-Muslim cannot have custody of a Muslim child.

“I think Aneela will not be given to the parents but sent to a shelter or child protection care bureau,” said Rehman, a member of the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan. “She can’t reside with the parents, who are Christians.”

After the hearing, the sisters were returned to the government-run Dar-Ul-Aman women’s shelter, where they have stayed since July 29. They have been forbidden from seeing their parents or the Muslim kidnappers.


Threats Continue

The kidnappers, however, continue to intimidate the girls, said Raheel, their uncle.

“Even in the women’s shelter run by the government, they keep on calling them on the phone,” he said. “They keep on threatening them there also. That’s why they can’t change their minds.”

He said the kidnappers are threatening the girls’ parents to stop trying to regain custody of their daughters.

“They told them not to go to court, or they would kill them,” Raheel said.

Attorney Rehman said the courthouse at the Aug. 20 hearing could be a charged environment, since the local press has published stories advocating the kidnappers’ claims.

Raheel noted that the local Urdu papers, Jang and Xpress, quoted the kidnappers as saying the Christian family was threatening them for the return of their daughters even though they had freely chosen to become Muslims.

A priest at the Masih family’s parish known only as Father Asab said many Muslims have expressed their sympathy to the Christian family but are afraid of speaking out against the perpetrators.

“Many Muslims are also with us, those who understand,” he said. “But the majority is afraid to tell the truth. In this case many people in our area, many Muslims, know that those who kidnapped the girls … have a bad name in society. But even Muslim families are frightened to tell the truth.”

Report from Compass Direct News