This article first appeared on Coptic Solidarity.
Another tragic story surrounding a Christian household has just surfaced from Egypt.
Four years ago, a Coptic priest heard cries emanating from inside his empty church. He located its source, only to discover a newborn baby boy, apparently abandoned by a mother who bore him out of wedlock. The priest entrusted the newborn babe to a childless, pious, couple from his congregation. Considering that they had been praying to God for 29-years to give them a child, they joyously embraced the boy as their own and baptized and named him Shenouda, a popular Coptic name, including of the current pope’s predecessor.
For the next four years everything went well. The boy—known among the congregation as “Baby Shenouda”—was the pride and joy of his adopted parents’ lives. Seeing him as a miracle-child, a “gift from God,” they spared no care or expense on his upbringing. Despite his young age, they even managed to teach him the alphabet as well as several biblical verses that he memorized in connection with every letter.
Then the Egyptian state learned about this otherwise happy development. Because Egyptian law does not allow for adoption, the 4-year-old child was seized from his loving parents’ arms—to cries of “mamma, papa!”—and sent to an orphanage.
The police, the ministry of social affairs, and the family-status court based their decision to seize the child on one thing: because the religious affiliation of Shenouda’s biological parents is unknown, he must be considered Muslim. This is based on Islamic teaching, whereby every human being is born as a sort of prototypical Muslim; they only “lose” their Islam when taught false things or religions (in this case, Christianity).
At the orphanage, the child was forcibly “returned” to Islam: he was issued a birth certificate—marked “Muslim” under religion—and given an acceptable Muslim name, Yusuf.
Above and beyond these coercive measures, it should be noted that Egyptian orphanages are notoriously terrible and overly crowded dungeons where individual children are “swallowed” up into the mass. There, they are at best neglected, and often have little to look forward to other than a becoming “street kids” and possibly turning to a life of crime on release.
From the moment when the state seized the child until now, his adoptive parents have been in tears—or, to quote from a recent interview, “living in hell.” They have pled with the state to have the child returned. After sobbingly explaining in the interview how her heart “leapt with joy” when she first heard Shenouda say “mamma,” his mother even offered to work for free as a servant in the orphanage, just to be near him. The father said he would do “anything”—“shoot me with gunfire even, anything, just so long as I can have my child back!”
All such pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Nor have Egypt’s so-called “National Council for Human Rights” and “National Council for Motherhood and Childhood” bothered to make any utterances on this matter.
A closer look at the intricacies behind the state’s decision further explains its “rationale.” First, Egyptian family-status law is based on Islamic law. Family-status laws for Christians are based on Christian “laws,” but on condition that they do not counter sharia. In this case, adoption is lawful in Christianity, but it is not applicable since sharia does not allow for adoption (based on a well-known precedent of the Prophet Muhammad: in order to marry Zaynab, the wife of a young man he had adopted, the very concept and practice of adoption had to be nullified—otherwise Muhammad would have been marrying his daughter-in-law, which would have been illegal.)
In other words, the reason Shenouda and his family were targeted is because of their Christian faith. After all, while adoption is illegal in Egypt, it is possible for an orphan to be taken into “custody” by a family, where he/she gets care, though without carrying the family’s name or inheriting.
But in the present case, the child—whose background is unknown—was being raised as a Christian, and it is this that has caused the state to act, based on the Islamic teaching cited above. If every human is born a Muslim, obviously it becomes a great “crime” to offer up any orphaned child to a Christian, Jew, or any other non-Muslim parent. This is the primary argument being used by the state against Shenouda’s adoptive parents’ legal attempts to reclaim the boy.
Meanwhile, there is every indication that Shenouda was born to a Christian mother—or at least to a mother who thought Christians would best know how to raise her unwanted child. Otherwise, why abandon the babe in a church?
Yet, rather than let this 4-year-old boy be raised and given exclusive attention by a loving mother and father, the Egyptian state prefers to throw him into an overcrowded, underfed, and often times very abusive orphanage—anything, so long as he does not grow up Christian but rather Muslim, which is all that the state apparently cares about.