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The Egyptian government has often overlooked violence against Copts, in favor of bolstering a false narrative of national unity where blatant sectarian divisions are disregarded.
Four years ago, Shenouda was just a newborn when a priest found him abandoned inside his Coptic Church in Egypt. With no parent in sight, the priest entrusted the baby to a childless couple who had been childless for 29 years and were well-known members of the congregation.
Ecstatic by the news, the parents baptized the child and named him Shenouda, after the current pope’s predecessor.
The Boulos family would go on to live a normal, happy four years, dubbing Shenouda their “miracle child.” But all that changed when the couple’s niece reported Shenouda to the authorities for fear that he might in any way impact the family’s inheritance.
Upon conducting further investigations, the police found no blood relation between the parents and the child. To shield the priest’s involvement, the father reportedly signed a paper stating Shenouda was found “on the street” and the boy was taken from his adoptive parents to an orphanage.
Egypt’s Islamic-based law states that all children with no proven ancestry are Muslim by default. Adoption is forbidden, but Takafful “sponsorship,” which is similar to modern foster care is permitted.
Foster children cannot inherit their foster parents’ names, money, or belongings. They are only entitled to “gifts.”
Though Shenouda was separated from his family in February, the story resurfaced in September after the parents took to the media to express their desperate plight to reunite with their child.
Naguib Gabriel, the attorney representing the family, revealed on November 7, 2022, that he intends to visit the orphanage where Shenouda now lives along with a delegation from the Egyptian Federation for Human Rights, bearing toys and gifts. The adoption facility had previously prohibited Shenouda’s adoptive parents from seeing the child in an effort to “make the child forget the parents,” the mother stated in an interview.
On December 17, 2022, an administrative court hearing will be held in conjunction with the parents’ complaint, which challenges the decision to convert the boy to Islam and demands his return to the family. Gabriel stated that they have so far secured three witnesses to testify in the parents’ favor. Two of the witnesses saw Amale Mikhael, Shenouda’s adoptive mother, pick up the child after he was abandoned at the church, local media reported.
According to the attorney, the third witness attended to the birth mother throughout her pregnancy and was present when Shenouda was born. The witness stated that the birth parents were indeed Christian.
Approximately 267 Egyptians including human rights defenders, artists, writers and others have called for the return of the child. The fate of Shenouda, however, remains in the hands of the Egyptian judiciary.
In the MENA region, where religious laws govern adoption, Shenouda’s story raises an important discussion. However, experts and observers note that there are alternatives that parents can use to care for orphans without violating the law.
Copts as “second-class citizens”
Angie Henein, Media Relations Manager for Coptic Orphans NGO told Fanack that the child is experiencing an immense identity crisis where everything he knew has been taken away from him – his sense of home, security and surroundings have all shifted.
“Such a shock might require years of psychosocial treatment,” Henein said. “We hope the story of Shenouda drives the approval of a new bill that allows Copts to adopt in accordance with Christian religious laws.”
Approximately 10% of Egypt’s 95 million citizens are Coptic Christians, a minority that has existed for centuries. They are the main Christian denominations in Egypt, Sudan, and Libya. However, when it comes to legal matters, they are required to adhere to the Islamic Sharia that guides Egyptian law.
Despite what has been described as warm relations between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the regime, Coptic activists advocating against violations of individual Christian rights are consistently persecuted. Coptic citizens, activists say, simply do not enjoy the same freedoms as the institutions that claim to represent them.
Moreover, the Egyptian government has often overlooked violence against Copts, in favor of bolstering a false narrative of national unity where blatant sectarian divisions are disregarded.
Egypt’s fostercare system
In 2018, Egypt revised its Child Law, allowing more people – including single women – to adopt and foster children of unknown parentage under Egypt’s Alternative Family system.
The changes were meant to address the country’s history of mistreating and abusing children, while also providing financial relief to the care facilities.
The High Committee for Alternative Family, which is a judge-led body that reviews applications, has set a number of requirements that married couples who have been together for at least three years must meet. The Ministry of Social Solidarity then requires applicants to go through training programs for foster and adoptive parents.
According to the Social Welfare Department of the Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity, the number of foster children increased from 3,000 in 2015 to 12,000 in 2018, as a result.
Owing to Sharia law‘s emphasis on maintaining bloodlines as a means of guaranteeing lineage and inheritance, foster care is the closest thing to adoption in Egypt. Consequently, adopted children cannot receive the name of their parents.
In the case of Shenouda, Ahmed Esmail, an editor at Al-Dustoor Newspaper, told Fanack that the Boulos family faces a precarious situation if the birth mother does not appear.
“At the very least, the biological mother must show up and demonstrate that the child is born of Christian parents before they can get him back. If not, the Bouloses will be unable to adopt a child that is by-default considered Muslim,” Esmail explained.
Shenouda has been issued a new birth certificate with his new religiously neutral name, Youssuf, on it, and is currently receiving Islamic instruction at the orphanage.
The child’s behavior will undoubtedly change significantly as a result of being forcibly taken away from his parents, according to Yasmin Kerbej, a Lebanese social worker who looks after orphans in Lebanon.
“Depending on what was conveyed to him and how he is being treated at the orphanage, his conduct is subject to change. He will likely develop a strong protection mechanism against others that could manifest as hostility and rage,” Kerbej told Fanack.
“It is also possible that the child may develop a sense of hate toward his adoptive parents for thinking that they had purposefully abandoned him based on the stories told to him by his new caregivers.”
“I have observed that orphans tend to develop a strong guilt complex where they blame themselves for being abandoned – thinking they are unworthy,” Kerbej added.
In the case of Shenouda
Esmail claims that because sustaining “lineage” and religious standards continue to be of utmost importance, society as a whole dissuades individuals who are interested in adoption. Community members frequently criticize and scrutinize couples who are considering adoption.
“In our conservative society, orphans are automatically assumed to be children born out of adultery and can damage the family’s reputation. For this reason, some families sponsor children inside an orphanage to escape social censure,” Esmail said.
In addition, Esmail claims that some care facilities oppose adoption due to the financial gains they receive from donations and charitable contributions.
Mariana Sami, an independent journalist, says Egyptian churches have their own orphanages where they care for children with known parents. In comparison with government-run orphanages, which care for children with known or unknown parents, these facilities house fewer children. All orphanages are supervised by the ministry of social affairs.
“Children who are born to unknown parents are stigmatized and branded as illegitimate for the rest of their lives. Children whose parents are identified, however, are treated more kindly because it is assumed that their parents only gave them up due to financial difficulties,” Sami told Fanack.
Adoption in the Coptic Church
The Coptic laws of 1938 allowed adoption out of necessity and had the option of giving the child a new name. An adoptive parent must be over 40 years old, without children, and have a good reputation.
The main Orthodox Coptic Church, headed by the late Pope Shenouda III, had refuted the 1938 laws saying “they were imposed by the Coptic Communal Council and do not reflect the church’s ideology.” In response to their disagreement on the legitimacy of adoption and divorce reasons, the Pope drafted a new bill that was frowned upon by many in the church.
Although the bill was shelved, the Pope defended his decision saying, “The government and our Muslim brothers are generally against adoption, so I do not want to clash with them over something that is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible… We do not want a rift between us.”
In the absence of a clear adoption mechanism, Sami claims that people will come up with ways to get around it. This opens up the door for child exploitation and child trafficking – where she says children are sold on the black market either for exploitative jobs or for illegal adoption – due to the negative connotation associated with “illegitimate” children and lack of social awareness.
Moncef Naguib Suleiman, an MP from Egypt and a member General Assembly of the Coptic Church, is pressing parliament to change the proposed family legislation. It is believed that certain members will push for the adoption of Christians. But it is a complicated process.
“Adoption is compatible with Christian Sharia, but it violates the public order of the state,” MP Suleiman told Al-Shorouk daily. He also emphasized that current laws criminalize adoption. “We are bound by public order in Egypt.”
For his part, MP Ihab Ramzy, asserted that the legislation does not forbid adoption, citing Article 3 of the Constitution, which permits non-Muslims to apply their laws in matters involving personal status.
In his comments to Al-Shorouk, he emphasized the need to reconsider the application of the adoption texts in Coptic Orthodox Regulation 38 until the issuance of the unified personal status law for Christians, with the return of the adoption texts that the churches had previously agreed to delete at the state’s request, he said.
Muslim and Christian discrepancies
With its headquarters in the United States and additional offices in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, the Coptic Orphans NGO helps fatherless Coptic children in Egypt during the country’s present financial crisis and rising inflation.
“We provide help for the mother so that she could take care of her children and keep the child living at home so that they don’t end up in an orphanage,” Henein said.
“In one of our programs, we work with Christian and Muslim girls from remote areas to improve their education, develop better behavioral attitudes, and foster a bond between the Muslim and Christian communities,” Henein added.
For adoption to be possible, Henein and Sami agree that a law amendment is needed for the personal status law for Egyptian Christians. However, Islam, Egypt’s dominant religion, has strict rules regarding Kafala.
Kafala comes from the word “Takafful” where individuals volunteer to sponsor a child by providing them with money, and taking care of their education, health, interests, and more.
According to Mohammed Ghaly, Professor of Islam and Biomedical Ethics at the Research Center for Islamic Legislation & Ethics (CILE) at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Islamic law forbids claiming a foster child as one’s own.
“The immediate family and the community at large must know that the child is adopted,” Ghaly said. “The child can be brought home and raised in the family, but he cannot inherit unless his parents write one third of their inheritance in their will as a ‘gift’.”
A matter of great complication
Along with marriage, Ghaly says that Islamic Sunnah speaks of two “waters” flowing from a man and a woman that contribute to the making of a child and calling it their own. In the absence of one of these factors, a child does not belong to its adoptive parents. In the case of an out-of-wedlock birth, the child will be assigned to the mother only.
As to the negative view of Lakit, or illegitimate child, the word’s literal translation is “the child found on the road with unknown parents.”
“The negative perspective on some orphans is largely a cultural issue. Islamic rules clearly state that there is no discrimination against people and that the child shouldn’t suffer punishment for his parent’s actions,” the scholar said. Additionally, the child should be considered more vulnerable and in need of more care and protection.”
It is also Islam’s belief that a child’s biological lineage should be protected, which is why it strongly opposes adoption.
In regards to Muslims who wish to take care of children in non-Muslim countries and are forced to follow Western adoption procedures, the scholar says that Islam permits it as long as it is clearly communicated to the child and community that the child is not related by blood.
“There are charitable organizations that allow you to sponsor a child in another country where you pay a certain amount of money every month and receive updates on the child’s education and well-being,” he added.
Adoption in MENA
Most of the Middle East’s population is Muslim, with minorities including Christians, Jews, Baha’is, and other faiths. As a result, religion continues to play a significant role in MENA societies’ laws, particularly when it comes to adoption.
Public information regarding adoption is scarce in the MENA region, though some countries are more open to the concept.
Similarly to Egypt, only guardianship is permitted under the Lebanese law, and some sources claim that adoption is supervised by each sect’s religious personal status law; with Islam prohibiting adoption and Christianity permitting it under certain conditions.
However, Kerbej, who works with guardianship cases in courts, says all Lebanese families or foreigners residing in Lebanon can apply for guardianship over a child, regardless of their religious backgrounds.
“You might run into a strict judge who pressures the parents to keep the child’s original faith but that’s the only hurdle,” Kerbej said.
Kerbej claims that a child can even receive his parents’ last name with the use of the “right connections.” She adds that individuals sponsoring the child within the orphanage are fewer this year due to Lebanon’s economic crisis in 2019.
Syria follows the same Islamic rule but many Syrian families have adopted children and registered newborns as their own at the civil registry. In 2019, approximately 185,000 children were orphaned in Syria’s northwestern region by the armed conflict, according to the Syria Response Coordinators.
Orphanages all around the Middle East are plagued by a variety of issues, including molestations, a lack of funding, and harsh caregivers. It is crucial to remember, though, that guardianship or adoption issues in the MENA might involve both monetary and unnecessary obstacles. Some orphanages, according to Kerbej, “enjoy the income they receive from caring for these children, while the humanitarian side is utterly discarded and children suffer as a result.”
In the case of Shenouda, and adoption for Coptic Christians in Egypt at large, Nermien Riad, executive director of Coptic Orphans, believes that for now “there is no possibility [adoption] will happen as known in the Western world.”
Nevertheless, just as Copts once had to avert the law to build churches until reform occurred, she hopes “adoption will become included in the legal revisions. And not just for the rare examples like Shenouda, but for all Coptic children in need of care.”
“Families are ‘adopting’ informally already, in the shadows,” Riad told Christianity Today. “If there is legalization for Christians – that would be ideal.”