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 


Christian mother wins right to high court appeal regarding ruling that favored Muslim father.

ISTANBUL, February 20 (Compass Direct News) – Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud last week granted the mother of 14-year-old twins Andrew and Mario Medhat Ramses the right to appeal a custody decision awarding her sons to their Muslim father.

Muslim convert Medhat Ramses Labib gained custody of the boys last September, contrary to Article 20 of Egypt’s Personal Status Law, which states children should remain with their mother until age 15. The boys’ mother, Kamilia Lotfy Gaballah, won the right to appeal on Feb. 11.

“We all have a little bit of hope, new hope,” said George Ramses, the twins’ older brother. “Of course, they are a little afraid about everything, but generally they are excited.”

With support from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Gaballah will appeal the Family Court’s decision awarding custody to the father before the Court of Cassation. Family Court decisions are not usually given recourse to the Court of Cassation, one of Egypt’s highest courts, and require special referral from a public prosecutor.

EIPR Director Hossam Bahgat stressed that the Court of Cassation will be examining the law on which the decision was based, not the decision itself.

“The Court of Cassation will pronounce a decision on the legal rule that Christian children, when one of their parents converts to Islam, should be automatically moved to the Muslim parent’s custody,” he said. “So it is very important in terms of changing the legal rule, but according to the law it will not have a direct impact on Andrew and Mario themselves.”

Preliminary hearings are scheduled to begin on March 2.

The twins will celebrate their 15th birthday in June of this year. At 15, Egyptian children of divorcees have the legal right to choose which parent they want to live with. Ramses told Compass that he is skeptical about whether his brothers will be given this right.

“The whole law is that kids should spend the first 15 years with their mum, and then they get to choose who they want to live with,” Ramses said. “[Choosing] is the second part of the rule that was not applied to us, so we don’t know actually what will be the case.”

The boys’ father, Labib, converted to Islam in 1999 after divorcing Gaballah to marry another woman. In 2006 Labib altered the official religious status of the boys and later applied for custody.


Covenant Breaches

The boys are now at the center of two separate disputes, both of which have roots in the complex interaction between Islamic and secular law in Egypt: whether children should be automatically awarded to the Muslim parent, and whether they therefore should automatically convert to Islam.

Custody battles between Muslim fathers and Christian mothers have typically been instances where Islamic law has predominated over secular legislation. Sharia (Islamic law), which the Egyptian constitution declares as being the source of law, states that a non-Muslim should not have authority over a Muslim.

In the case of Andrew and Mario, this sharia provision meant that they should not be left under the jurisdiction of their non-Muslim mother. The automatic and compulsory conversion of the twins, following their father’s decision to become Muslim, is the second area of contention EIPR is working on behalf of Gaballah to resolve.

The issue once again shows the contradictory stances of Egyptian civil law, which reflects both freedom of religion and Islamic thought. A fatwa (religious edict) issued by Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, regarding the case of Andrew and Mario states, “The religion of the two children should follow their Muslim father’s, unless they change their religion with full will after puberty.”

Although this statement allows Andrew and Mario the right to choose their religion “after puberty,” conversion from Islam is not only extremely difficult in Egypt but also dangerous.

Egypt has ratified a number of human rights treaties allowing advocacy groups like EIPR recourse to international watchdogs and advisory bodies. One of these, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR), has agreed to examine the case. The commission has asked both parties to submit written statements by March in preparation for an initial hearing in May.

The European Union of Coptic Organisations for Human Rights (EUCOHR) has also weighed in, petitioning the European Parliament for help.

“We have gone to the European Parliament with a legal document detailing about 30 to 40 breaches of international covenants like the International Declaration of Human Rights,” said Ibrahim Habib, vice-chairman of EUCOHR.

Habib said he hopes involving international bodies such as these will raise the profile of the case and put pressure on the Egyptian judiciary to rule impartially. Such attention could also have positive implications for the much harassed Coptic community at large.

The report filed by EUCOHR and the U. S. Coptic Foundation for Legal Assistance, which explores violations of such pacts as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ends with this statement:

“This is a call for justice and to save the two children from the coercion, persecution and injustice with which they are overburdened and, it is respectfully requested that a prompt action be taken to save those children and their future. Also, the annulment of the judgements against the two children is promptly requested.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Human rights advocates look to international arena for help.

ISTANBUL, November 24 (Compass Direct News) – Egyptian human rights workers are looking to international bodies for support against Muslim judges who use sharia (Islamic law) to undermine custody rights of Christian mothers.

Despite provisions such as Egyptian law’s Article 20, which dictates that minors should remain with their mother until age 15, judges consistently rule in favor of Muslim fathers in custody disputes with Christian mothers. Islamist judges typically resort to Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution, which states that “principles of Islamic law are the principal source of legislation.”

Sharia-based decisions that rule contrary to Egyptian statutory law have led the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an independent human rights organization, to protest before the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR). The ACHPR was formed by the African Union to oversee the implementation of its Charter on Human and People’s Rights.

An investigation, decision and recommendation by the African Commission to the Egyptian government would lend considerable weight to the EIPR’s efforts to enforce Egyptian Personal Status Law, which states explicitly the mother’s right to custody of her children until they reach age 15.

The EIPR’s complaint before the African Commission accuses the Egyptian government of violating the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Egypt ratified in 1984, the human rights organization said in a Nov. 10 statement. The EIPR referred to the case of 13-year-old twins Andrew and Mario Medhat Ramses, whom an appeals court awarded to their father Medhat Ramses Labib on Sept. 24 after a custody battle.

“The government’s treatment of the boys’ mother, Kamilia Lotfy Gaballah, constituted discrimination based on her religion and violated her right to equal protection before the law,” the EIPR stated. “The case also charges that the government violated the two boys’ right to freedom of religion and contravened the state’s legal obligation to protect child rights.”

The boys’ father, Labib, converted to Islam in 1999 after divorcing Gaballah to marry another woman. In 2006 Labib altered the official religious status of the boys and later applied for custody.

“Obviously in this custody decision, it is a flagrant disregard of the Personal Status Law, which ensures custody for the mother until the children are 15 years old,” said Hossam Bahgat of the EIPR. “In this case the judiciary chose to ignore statutory law and apply their own interpretation of sharia.”

The long-running case of the twins exemplifies the problem but is in no way unique. Sisters Ashraqat Gohar, 12, and Maria Gohar, 8, were taken from their Christian mother in January and placed in the custody of their Muslim father, Wafiq Gohar, despite his criminal record and the 12-year-old’s claims that he is an alcoholic.

The court ruling referred to Wafiq Gohar’s fears that “[the girls] would cherish a religion other than Islam, eat foods that are banned in Islam and go to church” as determining factors in their decision.

“It is a big problem we are facing in Egypt,” said Naguib Gobrail, president of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations. “The decision of the court clearly stated that according to Article 2, the main source [of legislation] is sharia, so the judge cannot apply the natural law.”

More recently, 3-year-old Barthenia Rezqallah of Tanta, near Cairo, remains in her father’s custody, despite a court order that she be returned to her mother pending a final verdict. Police have turned a blind eye to the court order out of fears that the child will practice Christianity rather than Islam, said Gobrail.

Gobrail said that international pressure may be the solution.

“Maybe a connection with someone of international character connecting with President [Hosni] Mubarak is the only way,” he said, “because he has the authority to give orders to the National Assembly to issue a law to make things equal between Muslims and Copts, especially for the children.”  

Report from Compass Direct News