After six months of legal proceedings and social media squabbles, Amal Mikhail and Farouk Fawzi may be in a position to retrieve their four-year-old “adopted” son Shenouda, this time in the capacity of the child’s caretaking rather than adoptive family.
“We are hoping and we are praying,” said Mikhail. She has been devastated since her separation from Shenouda who was taken into an orphanage after a family relative told the authorities that Mikhail and Fawzi were not his biological parents.
During the past week, a landmark fatwa from Al-Azhar stipulated that an abandoned child found by Christians in a predominantly Christian domain should follow the religion of those who found the child. The edict was issued on 22 March in an answer to a question posed on Al-Azhar’s website. It came 48 hours after a 20 March Administrative Court announcement that it had no legal competence to issue a ruling on the wishes of the family.
The Coptic Orthodox Church has revealed that it officially notified the prosecutor-general that the child in question was found in the bathroom of a church in north Cairo’s Al-Zawiya Al-Hamra and that the bishop of the church, now deceased, knew the child’s biological mother.
“It would have been better if this important fatwa had been issued before the Administrative Court ruling but we are hoping that things can be sorted out within the next 60 days so the child can return home. Otherwise, we will pursue the due legal process and opt for an appeal,” said Naguib Gobrail, one of the Mikhail-Fawzi family’s lawyers.
The drama began last year when Mariam Samir, a relative of Fawzi’s, made a legal complaint about the status of Shenouda who had been taken into the custody of Mikhail and Fawzi and registered as their biological son. In keeping with legal regulations, the Ministry of Social Solidarity interfered to place the four-year-old in an orphanage. His name was changed to Youssef and his religion from Christianity to Islam. A source at the ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the ministry “had no choice but to act this way because there are clear legal regulations stipulating that abandoned children, no matter their age, are Muslim unless there is evidence proving otherwise”.
“With the issue being debated on social media, we had no choice but to act promptly.” The source added that neither the National Council for Motherhood and Childhood (NCMC) nor the Ministry of Social Solidarity had “jumped to remove the child from the family that had been raising him”.
After the child was placed in an orphanage, Mikhail and Fawzi began litigation to retrieve their son. The couple publicly acknowledged “unintentional wrongdoing” by giving the child Fawzi’s family name, saying they had no idea that it was not possible for them to adopt and raise the child without first obtaining caretaking status from the Ministry of Social Solidarity.
Hoda Nasrallah, a lawyer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says that the issue of adoption for Christians is confused. Unlike Islam — Islamic law strictly prohibits adoption — Christianity does not have any clear-cut regulations or a prohibitive position, meaning “what ultimately counts is the legal text”.
The personal status bill for Copts, issued in the 1930s, contains some room for Coptic Christians to adopt children though it also allows for national laws, drafted in line with Islamic Sharia, to take precedent if it is perceived to be in the wider interest of society.
The 1996 Child Law clearly prohibits adoption. “In addition to the fact that the newer legal text of 1996 overrules the 1930s bill, there is the fact that the Christian Bill allows for the domination of the national laws,” says Nasrallah, adding that in the absence of a cohesive new personal status bill for all Christians, national laws will continue to apply.
The debate over a unified personal status code has been unfolding for over a decade, largely as a result of the three churches in Egypt — the Orthodox, which is followed by the vast majority of Egyptian Christians, and the Catholic and Evangelical churches — failing to reach a consensus on its provisions.
“In the absence of an updated bill, the state is expected to insist laws cannot be applied on a selective basis, to allow Christians to adopt but not Muslims,” says Nasrallah. She adds that the issue is particularly tricky in the case of abandoned children who, according to the law, are considered Muslims unless there is evidence to prove otherwise.
The case of Shenouda grew more complicated when Samir, the family member who made the initial complaint of illegal adoption, appeared in a video on social media a few days before the Administrative Court ruling claiming that the biological father of the child was Muslim and the biological mother Christian. She went on to claim the mother was Rania Ramzi, a relative of Fawzi’s.
On Monday evening, Naguib Gobrail, another lawyer for Mikhail and Fawzi, announced that Ramzi had undergone a DNA test that proved she was not the mother of the child. Gobrail also said, in a post placed on the Facebook United Copts channel, that the office of the prosecutor-general had re-interrogated the family over the details of their finding the child, and Mikhail and Fawzi had confirmed they found the child inside the church. Combined with the official notification that the church sent to the prosecutor’s office regarding the incident and the edict of Al-Azhar which he said is supported by the Grand Mufti, Gobrail claimed the NCMC is ready to issue a recommendation that the child be reunited with Mikhail and Fawzi once they acquire caretaking family status.
In 1959, Egypt adopted a law that allows families to take in and raise children as caretakers. The law stipulates that the religion of the caretaking family should be the same as the child’s and that the caretaking family cannot pass its name to any children they take in.
“This is very clear and relates to the strict Islamic principle of not mixing family lines or confusing biological descent. It applies to Muslims and Christians alike,” explains Nasrallah.
Gobrail said Mikhail and Fawzi are happy to abide by all legal requirements to retrieve the child.
“It is in their interest and that of the child. Indeed, it is in the interest of all children in orphanages to find families to look after them in line with state regulations,” he said. “We are hoping that the case of Shenouda will prompt legislation and action to help as many children as possible.”
Official estimates suggest around 16,000 children are housed in 500 orphanages across Egypt. The biological parents of the majority are unknown. A new bill on caretaking families is being drafted by the Ministry of Social Solidarity with the aim of allowing qualified families to take in children. Since 2015, the state has allowed abandoned children to be sent to caretaking families at the age of three-months rather than the previous two years. Since 2019, the ministry has also been actively working to help homeless children, estimated at around 20,000, find caretakers.
It is estimated that around 10,000 children have been raised by caretaking families.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly