From a little child to the Grand Mufti: Humanity prevails in Egypt. By Dr. Ashraf Ramelah

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As long as man has existed, discrimination of all forms has existed in our cultures – gender, race, disabilities, religion. Legislation usually outlaws this behavior but not in Egypt where the constitution builds bias into the law of the land. I am referring to the constitution’s second article which states, “Sharia is the main source of legislation.”

The Sharia article of the constitution serves to separate Egyptians. Division among citizens is the practical result of the double standard attached to religious based state law. Using discrimination without embarrassment, the Egyptian state acts without sensitivity to inculcate this immorality. 

Copts, for example, cannot join the sovereign apparatus of the army or general intelligence or the State Security Agency. The latter is repressive and embraces the methods of the Religious Conversion Office, which is abusive to Muslims who wish to leave Islam and unresponsive to Christian complaints and evidence about their daughters taken against their will by Muslim men.

Currently, the state has come under severe criticism from Egyptian journalists and thinkers scrutinizing an unfortunate case that became widely known months ago. This tragic case concerns a little boy taken by the state from his parents based on a DNA test and the admission of the parents that their newborn son was adopted by them in 2018. The parents explained that five years earlier a foundling infant had been abandoned in the church under the shadow of the cross for safe keeping, and the priest who found the baby called the childless couple and offered it to them to keep and raise. 

After the infant was baptized into the Orthodox Christian faith the parents requested an official birth certificate in the name of Shenouda in honor of the late Orthodox pope. It was granted by the state. In an interview with the Al Nabaa newspaper late last year (Dec 2022) the mother recalled what came next in their story after their child reached the age of four. “The great tragedy began when I received a phone call from a police officer requesting that my husband and I with the child go to the station, or we would be arrested immediately.” That call was prompted by a filed police report falsely accusing them of kidnapping the child. 

After a DNA test proved the son was not their biological child, the state forced the boy into a state-run orphanage. The state reissued an unambiguous Muslim surname for the child and converted him to Islam. Demoralizing the parents even further was the change of his first name to an ambiguous Muslim- Christian name. After eight months of the boy’s captivity, the state estranged the parents from the child by denying them visits to see their son.

A foundling’s status

According to Sharia, foundlings are Muslims automatically. As per legal experts, the foundling child whose parental religion is unknown after investigations is a “Muslim” child, according to the text of the second article of the constitution.

On the other hand, Zainab Khair, an Egyptian human rights activist and specialist in children’s rights, refutes this notion stating, “There is no requirement in Egyptian law that makes a child of unknown parentage a Muslim by nature, as is rumored.” Likewise, according to Attorney Ehab Ramzi, the Ministry of Social Solidarity has acted erroneously on “religious mood” without any legislative basis or legal text to do so. Ramzi also said this, “When the father or mother is unknown, then the child’s background is resorted to; in this case, the child was found inside a church, was baptized and raised within it in a Christian family…”

Adoption status

Another disputed issue in Egypt is adoption. It is known that Prophet Mohammed was against adoption due to personal reasons. In the Islamic Book of Sera, it is recorded that Mohammed’s adopted son, Zaid Bin Haritha, was married to Zainab Bint Jahsh. Mohammed desired her. It is morally forbidden in Arabic tradition for a man to marry his former daughter-in-law so he annulled his adopted son’s adoption status and then urged him to divorce. Upon the prophet’s marriage to the ex-wife, he prohibited adoption for all Muslim believers. This ancient anti-adoption declaration has informed current state policy through the Sharia second article of the constitution.

As Pontius Pilate washed his hands so goes the courts… into the House of Fatwa

On March 18th this year, the court ruled that Shenouda’s case (family vs. state) is not within its jurisdiction and dismissed it, which means the child remains in the orphanage in his status separated from his adopted parents. This is consistent with the opinion held by the House of Fatwa issued when the story became public knowledge. In short, the fatwa declared that any foundling child with unknown parentage is a Muslim.

Surprisingly though, just days ago, the Grand Mufti issued a fatwa (edit) in contradiction to that opinion from the House of Fatwa. Solomon Godah, a journalist with Almasray Alyoun newspaper, recently reported the following, “The Grand Mufti of Egypt after analyzing with great interest this case showed his responsibility toward the unity of the country. He did not hesitate to issue a two-page fatwa describing the different view of the issue and clearly explaining that in this specific case the child carries the family’s religion.”

This shocking interpretation by the Grand Mufti supersedes state law and any previous statements coming from the House of Fatwa. The Grand Mufti’s ruling came about via the Al-Azhar International Center of Electronic Fatwas when he responded to a question sent in inquiring about the religion of the child under these circumstances. His edict that ended the national focus on the little foundling stated, “if a foundling child is found in a church, and the finder is a non-Muslim, he is then the religion of the one who found him.”

Furthermore, a recent published certificate presented by Copts United news and issued by the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate confirms the child was found as an infant inside a church. In it, Bishop Martiros, General Bishop of the Eastern Railway Line, declared and confirmed the facts as known adding that the one who gave birth to the infant was a Christian woman whose identity is known only to the late Father Anthony.

Does this episode signal the beginning of the end to religious supremacy?

Is Egypt entering a renewed era of mutual respect and acceptance of non-Islamic religions? The outcome of this case gives hope for harmony between religions and unity in the country. Before the 1952 military coup when the Muslim Brotherhood took control of the country, Egyptians lived without hostility between Muslims and Christians in a culture agreeable to both. It was not a police state as today but had real freedom to speak out against injustice just as the Grand Mufti’s decision has spoken out against the injustice of religious supremacy. The direction to take would be to disband the fatwa from the civil space as once was in pre-Nasser days.  

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