ISTANBUL, Turkey (BP)–Following a decision by the Appeal Court of Alexandria in Egypt to grant custody of 13-year-old Coptic Christian twins to their Muslim father, their mother lives with the fear that police will take away her children at any moment.
Kamilia Gaballah has fought with her ex-husband Medhat Ramses Labib over custody and alimony support of sons Andrew and Mario in 40 different cases since he left her and converted to Islam so that he could remarry in 1999.
The court ruled in favor of Labib Sept. 24 in spite of an Egyptian law (Article 20), which grants custody of children to their mothers until the age of 15, and a fatwa (religious ruling) from Egypt’s most respected Islamic scholar, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, giving her custody.
“This decision was dangerous because it was not taken in accordance with Egyptian law but according to sharia [Islamic] law,” said Naguib Gobraiel, Gaballah’s lawyer and president of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations.
The lawyer told Compass Direct News that Egypt’s civic code calls for children under the age of 15 to stay with their mother regardless of their religion, whereas sharia tends to favor the Muslim parent in such cases.
“They want to stay with their mother,” Gobraiel said. “They don’t know anything about Islam and sharia. They are Christians and go to church on Sundays.”
The twins have publicly stated their faith, and during a test in a mandatory religious class two years ago they scribbled only, “I am a Christian” on their answer sheets and otherwise turned them in blank. The twins intend to go on a hunger strike if they are forced to live with their Muslim father, whom they hardly know, sources told Compass Direct.
“We only want one thing,” Gobraiel said. “We want the law to be applied in our cases like this one, not the sharia, because the government owes us citizenship. This is a civilized, secular country, not a religious country.”
The decision of the presiding judge, El Sayed El Sherbini, to give the father full custody is not even based on sharia but is purely arbitrary, Gaballah and her eldest son George Medhat Ramses contended, since the country’s State Mufti had granted custody to the mother in April 2006.
“We don’t want to give them to anyone or comply with the sentence,” Ramses told Compass. “All the legal ways have been wrong to us. We’ve been trying to make it as legal as we can, but the court has not been fair.”
Ramses, 21, who also is a Christian and lives with his mother and two younger brothers, said the judged showed bias in favor of his father because he converted to Islam shortly after he left Gaballah.
“The decision was unfair and oppressive,” Gaballah told Compass. “I am treated differently than other Egyptians, as if this is not my own country.”
Gaballah said she fears that her children will grow up without hope and a sense of justice.
“I am so sad and afraid about their psychology,” she said, “because they are facing something that is fundamentally against all the principles I have taught them.”
Gaballah said she is ready to keep fighting with the few means left in her power to keep her sons, even if it means a criminal record for not handing them over to their father.
“And I’m determined to get justice in my own country, because it is my natural right and my sons’ right,” she said. “I cannot see how I can comply with the people who are taking my rights away from me and taking my children from me to give them to an unworthy father and another woman.”
Labib is now married to his third wife, with whom he has a 4-year-old son. He is a businessman working in exports and travels between Alexandria and Cairo.
Gobraiel said he intends to send a clear message to Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and the international human rights community that judgments like this one are hypocritical on the part of a government that claims to be “civilized.”
“How can they think we live in a civilized and secular country when they are applying sharia law on us?” the attorney asked. “We will send a message to human rights organizations in Egypt and around the world to help us. We are angry and we want to declare it!”
PROBLEMATIC BIRTH CERTIFICATES
Even under their father’s custody, the twins have the legal right to live with whomever they choose in two years, when they turn 15. But Ramses said he doubts the court would let them return to their mother.
“The same law that states that they should stay with mother until the age of 15 is the one that says they can decide where to live after the age of 15,” he explained. “If the court didn’t apply the first part of the law, they won’t apply the second.”
At the age of 16, when Mario and Andrew apply for their identification cards, they will face yet another hurdle, Ramses said. In 2005, Labib went to the population register and changed the twins’ birth certificates from Christian to Muslim, to reflect his own religion.
Now Ramses fears that a Sept. 23 court ruling in the case of Bahia Nagy El-Sisi, sentencing her to prison for three years for “forgery of an official document,” could be what awaits him and his younger brothers. Nagy El-Sisi’s father had converted to Islam briefly in 1962, when she was 3 years old, and her documents were never altered to reflect the change as she remained a Christian. She and her sister discovered that their father had temporarily converted to Islam when the sister, Shadia Nagy, tried to issue marriage papers for her son.
Shadia Nagy was sentenced to three years in prison in 2007, also for “forgery.”
“These women are us in the future,” Ramses said.
Over the past few years, as Christians have found out about the twin boys’ case, Ramses said many have called them to give support.
“Christians see them as Coptic heroes and martyrs who stood up in front of all and said they were Christians and held on to it,” Ramses said. “All of them say they see the greatness of their ancestors and Christian heroes of long ago in them … and they carry a lot of respect and love for what they have done.”
Compass Direct News, based in Santa Ana, Calif., provides reports on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission.