Saleh Malas | Hassan Ibrahim
“The case of my separation from my husband began four and a half years ago, and still no decision has been made for desertion until today. I underwent two interrogation sessions in the Spiritual Court. The lawyer I appointed in my case attended several sessions without any concrete solutions. I still suffer to this day from neglect and incompatibility between my husband and myself.”
Christina, 30, (pseudonym for social reasons) complains to Enab Baladi about her faltering marriage, whose circumstances started ailing eight years ago until she reached a moment when her disappointments accumulated over fixing her relationship with her husband.
Christina filed a “marriage annulment and abandonment” lawsuit in 2017 before the Spiritual Court in the coastal city of Latakia since the long wait for her marriage to improve has turned into a disease that weakens her morally, but the divorce lawsuit left her more confused in the face of the absence of a court ruling to resolve her situation.
Syria lacks a civil law regulating personal status, and at the same time, there are several recognized sects that have special rules and principles that govern marriage, divorce, and family issues, with a clear constitutional guarantee.
These rules derive their provisions mainly from religious legislation, whose interpretations at times impose difficult conditions for the termination of the marital relationship between the two parties and produce regulations and legislations that prevent the wife from basic rights.
In many cases, this limits the wife’s positive contribution to the family’s interest and the social environment to which she belongs.
Also, this situation reflects paradoxes, tragedies, and problems resulting from the court’s failure to address dozens of family-related cases, and these cases become to have dimensions with dangerous expressions and indicators with time.
Despite the presence of wives living their marriages in anguish for years, the Spiritual Court in Latakia did not listen to their argument with the required seriousness.
In this investigation, Enab Baladi attempts to dismantle the marital conflict within the corridors of the Spiritual Court in Latakia governorate, based on testimonies obtained from three women, highlighting what hinders the treatment of this conflict, what obstructs the path towards justice and equality, and understanding what prevents the wife from obtaining her rights in making fateful decisions that shape the future of the marital relationship, most notably alimony and custody.
Archbishop addresses wife’s issues with “ridicule”
According to the nature of spiritual courts, the lawyer Christina appointed “cannot add any influence to the archbishop’s decision, who is considered the first and last decision-maker in the divorce process,” from her point of view.
The archbishop mentioned by Christina is Athanasius Fahd, who was elected as a Metropolitan in the Archdiocese of Latakia and its affiliated churches on 4 May 2018, succeeding Archbishop Youhanna Mansour, in a prayer of thanksgiving held in the Saint George cathedral in the city. The prayer was led by Patriarch John X.
During the course of the lawsuit, which ran into 2019, Christina’s judicial procedures were not clear, or on what basis the lawyer relied in his defense of her case, which he did not explain to her.
The Spiritual Court ruled in the case of Christina in 2019, who belongs to the Greek Orthodox sect, to restore married life, but she filed an appeal against this ruling, which is still awaiting today the final verdict.
“The archbishop decided to resume married life because the husband refuses to divorce and because the reasons are not convincing and sufficient for divorce for her husband and for the archbishop,” Christina said.
Since filing the lawsuit in 2017, Christina has been receiving alimony of 20,000 Syrian pounds per month (5 US dollars), but when the ruling was issued to restore married life, this support was stopped, and it was resumed after Christina filed an appeal against that ruling.
This amount “is not enough for the price of two cups of coffee for the archbishop’s guests,” according to her estimation, as there is a gap between the amount of alimony and the requirements of living and the reality in which it is hoped to live a decent life.
Enab Baladi reviewed the details of the story of Christina, who does not have a breadwinner at the present time to help her secure her livelihood, in addition to the details of the stories of two other women, all of whom belong to the Greek Orthodox sect, to know the nature of the violations they are subjected to and their limits within their marital life, and who commits them. However, Enab Baladi refuses to publish these details for fear of their safety from any security or social repercussions.
“My husband is not concerned with my needs, neither financially nor morally, nor the rights of marriage life. If I mention a specific situation in detail, I am afraid I will be identified because our society is small, and everyone knows each other’s problems.
I explained everything to the Archbishop more than once, but he confronted the story with ridicule. He considered the reasons for my request for divorce frivolous and started laughing with the priest who wrote the minutes of the session.
The Archbishop cannot understand the problem from a quarter of an hour of interrogation to decide on your life.”
Christina rules out that Christ would accept what the Christian clergymen have been doing “instead of painting the best picture of our religion.”
“Only those who do not realize the pain can laugh at someone’s agony,” says Christina.
The decision of the “unfair” Spiritual Court, which is attached to a religious authority to which the wife belongs, may threaten her trust in this authority, and her relationship with the church, with regard to the issues of marriage and its legislations, and the resulting marital relations, rights, duties, and procreation.
Also, family disputes that may develop into marriage issues that lead to divorce may paralyze the lives of entire families. These cases call for a discussion of the wife’s right to self-determination, alimony for her or her children, its amount, and conditions.
Court steals couples’ time
Ola (pseudonym), 29, told Enab Baladi that “every woman who wants a divorce ruling has to wait years until she wastes her life in the courts.”
Ola’s separation from her husband lasted about two years before the court issued a desertion ruling this year.
Although the spouses agree on a divorce, the Archdiocese and the Spiritual Court do not agree to this on the pretext that the divorce is not by mutual consent, and “they rely on the saying that what God has united and joined together, man must not separate, and they postpone the issue with attempts to establish reconciliation.”
Despite the issuance of the desertion ruling this year, Ola is still waiting due to the existence of a period called “annulment” that extends to months and sometimes years due to the delay of the court in issuing a divorce decision between the two parties.
In addition to Ola’s divorce crisis, her marriage resulted in a child who did not live a stable life among his family.
Ola’s lawyer relies on the so-called Holy Synod, which is a group of metropolitans and the patriarchate who issue the laws of the Spiritual Court of the Orthodox sect.
Alimony is issued after the judgment of desertion is issued, and the Holy Synod is competent to approve it and determine its amount on the basis of the type of work in which the largest proportion of individuals in society, who are employees, work, and not based on what the husband owns.
The court ruled the alimony of 25,000 Syrian pounds for Ola, and 35,000 pounds for her child, as a monthly allowance. After the termination of the desertion period (a period in which reconciliation is attempted), which was approved by the court, the wife’s maintenance stops, and then the divorce decision is issued after a year of desertion. The wife raises a request for the continuation of alimony for the child.
“Two years of my life were wasted in vain while waiting for the judgment of desertion to be issued, and no one ever compensated me for them,” says Ola.
The case of Huda (pseudonym), 33, is more complicated than her predecessors, with problems that the wife could not absorb and contain, as her marriage lacked basic pillars, most notably respect, trust, and intimacy.
“My husband is neglectful of our marital life, and above all, I doubt his infidelity, but the court does not rule on divorce unless it is proven that there is adultery. I am sure this is happening, but I have no evidence to prove it,” Huda says.
She added, “The court knows that my life is on hold, and there are many like me waiting.”
The mother of three depends on small sums of money from her relatives outside Syria to avoid a life of poverty and harsh living conditions.
Huda continued, “Our lives were for nothing while we were waiting. I was subjected to injustice, and I feel sad for the years that are passing while I am in a state of no marriage, no divorce.”
“If one of us is not comfortable in her married life, and she wants the decision to divorce, then the courts stop that desire, which leads the woman to wait a lot before engaging in this decision, especially if she has children, but sometimes we reach an unbearable stage.”
In trying to end unhappy or abusive marriages, women become haunted by the idea of losing their children if the so-called maternal custody period (which is determined by the child’s age) comes to an end.
Children also face violations of their rights in these cases, the most important of which is the right to have their best interests taken as a primary consideration in all judicial decisions regarding their fate, including provisions for determining who will take care of them.
Archbishop Athanasius (Fahd)
- Fahd was born in Latakia in 1965 and studied in the city’s schools.
- He obtained an engineer’s degree in agricultural sciences from Tishreen University.
- He completed the mandatory military service and worked for the General Directorate of Agriculture.
- He traveled to Greece and continued studying theology, and obtained a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Thessaloniki.
- He made frequent visits to the holy mountain, Mount Athos, located in northern Greece and considered a residential area, and monks from various Orthodox churches reside there.
- Fahd became a monk in the Patriarchal Monastery of St. George in Humaira by Bishop John X (Yazigi).
- He served in the parish of Paris when Bishop John Yazigi was elected Metropolitan of Europe in the year 2008.
- He returned from France and was elected auxiliary bishop of the
Metropolitan of Akkar, where he served in the Archdiocese of Tartous in 2011.
- He held the position of head of the monastery of St. Elias al-Rih on the Homs-Tartous road.
- He was raised in the Orthodox Sunday schools and served in the parish of St. Elias al-Faros as a chanter and guide.
- The Holy Antiochene Synod elected him, on 26 April 2018, as a Metropolitan for the Archdiocese of Latakia and its environs.
Orthodox spiritual courts
Judicial Authority Law No. 98 was issued on 15 November 1961, after the dissolution of the union between Syria and Egypt of the same year. Article No. 32 of it listed sections of the Syrian courts, at the forefront of which were Personal Status Courts, which are composed according to the provisions of Article 33 of:
1- Shariah courts.
2 – Doctrinal courts of the Druze sect.
3- Spiritual courts.
Article 36 of this law stipulates that “the spiritual courts of non-Islamic sects and their jurisdictions shall remain subject to the provisions in force.”
According to the principle of unity of the judiciary and instead of having multiple sides deciding on personal status matters, one court was established in each region to consider these cases, provided that the legislative provisions relating to the sect of the parties of the case are applied.
The competent department of the Court of Cassation is a reference for appealing judgments issued by the personal status courts.
Each sect has its own religious and legislative provisions in personal status matters specified in Article 308 of the Personal Status Law No. 59 of 1953, and the judicial procedures stipulated in the Code of Procedure No. 84 of 1953 are also applied.
Syrian Christians belong to more than 11 legally recognized sects, and each of these denominations has its own spiritual courts.
After the issuance of Decree No. 76 of 2010 amending Article 308 of the Personal Status Law, the Christian religious courts became competent in matters of inheritance and wills that were under the jurisdiction of Shariah courts.
According to the provisions of Law No. 23 of 2004, which includes the ratification of the Greek Orthodox Personal Status Law, the Orthodox spiritual judiciary consists of the Court of First Instance and the Court of Second Instance (Court of Appeal).
Concerning the Courts of First Instance, they are located in the center of each of the Antiochian parishes (the parish is the area of the patriarchate in which the patriarch is located and the metropolitan area where the bishop is located).
It is composed of a single judge or a preliminary chamber consisting of a president and two members. These courts judge urgent cases in accordance with the provisions of Article 78 of the Code of Procedure.
The case is brought before this court at the plaintiff’s option, either in the diocesan court in which the marriage was established or in the court to which the joint residence of the spouses belongs before the marital dispute arose.
Also, lawsuits for ending a marital relationship (annulment, dissolution of marriage, and divorce) are personal lawsuits that the right to file is limited to the spouses only.
The Court of First Instance issues its rulings unanimously or by the majority, and those with opposing opinions must state the reasons for their disagreement in a separate document attached to the decision.
Article 138 of the 2012 Syrian Constitution states that “judicial rulings are issued in the name of the Arab people in Syria.” The jurisprudence of the Syrian Court of Cassation has established that a ruling that is not issued in the name of “the Arab people in Syria” is null and void.
Therefore, the spiritual courts have traditionally issued their rulings in the name of the Church or in the name of God and in the name of “the Arab people in Syria” to ensure their implementation by the competent civil enforcement departments.
Inside First Instance courts
The archbishop of the archdiocese assumes the functions of the single judge and the presidency of the preliminary chamber, and he may appoint a deputy on his behalf for both positions, and if a preliminary chamber is formed in his archdiocese, he appoints two principal members and two associate members.
The archbishop of the archdiocese shall submit the names of the appointed judges to the patriarchal station to inform the Court of Appeal and the bishops of the dioceses of this. He also communicates their names to the competent civil authorities.
By a decision of the Holy Synod, the formation of the courts of the first instance can be modified by converting the position of the single judge to a preliminary chamber and vice versa.
Inside Appeal Court
The patriarch undertakes the formation of the Court of Appeal, including a president and advisors, and appoints with them an alternate president and adjunct advisors.
The courts of appeal are composed of chambers whose number and scope of work is determined by a decision of the patriarch, provided that one of these chambers would serve as a preliminary chamber located in the center of the patriarchate. The other chambers’ headquarters are determined in their formation decision.
Spiritual Court: Courts competent to hear personal status cases for Christians.
Alimony: The obligation of the well-to-do husband to secure the livelihood of his insolvent partner after the end of the marital relationship, also known as post-dissolution maintenance.
Wife’s alimony: The husband’s obligation to meet his wife’s needs of food, clothing, shelter, and other living costs during the marriage, and this responsibility ends with the end of the marriage. Under Orthodox Christian Personal Status Laws, maintenance remains a duty in cases of temporary abandonment. The wife’s alimony is different from child maintenance. The husband pays child support to his wife for the duration of her custody of the children.
Annulment: Considering an ecclesiastical marriage as if it had never existed.
Compensation: Under Christian personal status laws, the party that the judge considers responsible for an annulment, dissolution of marriage, or divorce is also responsible for compensating the other party for damages resulting from the termination of the marriage.
Desertion: Under Christian personal status laws, desertion is defined as the separation of spouses and is considered nullified by reconciliation. When desertion occurs, the spouses separate, but the marital bond continues so that neither of them can enter into a new marriage.
There are two types of desertion: permanent, which is justified by adultery, recognized by the Catholic Church only, and temporary, which is for a specified or indefinite period and is left to the discretion of the court and continues until the reasons necessitating desertion are resolved, and it is recognized by all Christian denominations.
Annulment of marriage and divorce in Christian denominations: It is the dissolution of a legal marriage contract for reasons specified and enumerated by law, while Catholic denominations do not recognize it.
Fragile laws, regulations do not protect rights
Legislation is not the only source of discrimination against the wife, for the procedures before spiritual courts are also responsible. All the women interviewed by Enab Baladi revealed that many procedural obstacles were key factors in their suffering during resorting to the court to obtain their limited rights despite the length of trials and the absence of legal and material assistance during the proceedings.
Lack of independence, oversight
In an interview with Enab Baladi, the Syrian lawyer and researcher Sahar Hawija confirmed the absence of the effectiveness of the internal mechanisms to monitor the work of judges in the spiritual courts, as they are marred by a lack of human resources, poor training, and a lack of independence for inspectors.
“According to the judicial authority law, the General Fee Law was not applied to these courts, and the principles of their formation were not regulated. Rather, the appointment of the president and members of the Court of First Instance and Appeal falls under the jurisdiction of the religious authority of the spiritual courts,” Hawija says.
Also, the spiritual courts “are not subject to the rules of judicial inspection stipulated in the Judicial Authority Law, perhaps out of the legislator’s respect for the feelings of sects and clerics, but all of this is considered negative,” according to the lawyer.
“As long as the Archbishop is the one who appoints judges in spiritual courts, and they have to implement religious teachings, and they are not subject to judicial authority, then they do not enjoy independence from religious authority, and there is nothing to prevent clerics from interfering with the judges’ work and implementing their will,” Hawija adds.
The Court of Cassation in Syria, the highest civilian court, also exercises limited oversight over the procedures and rulings of the spiritual courts.
The judges of the spiritual courts, whether of the first instance courts or the courts of appeal, are appointed by the higher spiritual and religious authorities.
“There is no condition for their selection to meet any of the conditions that must be met in appointing judges,” according to the lawyer, which is contrary to the logic of the work of courts in resolving marital and family disputes.
The reasons for the dissolution of marriage and desertion in Christian denominations lie in the case of temporary abandonment, daily discord, major disagreements, the impossibility of matrimonial life, even temporarily, or that one of the spouses threatens the life of the other. The court determines the term of desertion, provided that it does not exceed three consecutive years.
As for permanent desertion, it does not apply to the Orthodox sect, and the marriage is invalidated if it was concluded during the establishment of a previous marriage or it was concluded in violation of the basic laws of the church, such as marriage between relatives up to the third degree, or the marriage contract with a priest who does not belong to any of the spouses’ sect.
Invalidated marriages also include those concluded without consent or as a result of duress or threat, or if either spouse is not qualified for married life at the time of marriage (but only if children are absent and less than five years have passed since the marriage).
The marriage is dissolved if either of the spouses converts to another religion or neglects any of the other spouses for a period of three consecutive years, or no reconciliation has taken place after the period of abandonment, or if either spouse attempts to kill the other, and in this latter case, although marital violence is a cause of abandonment, this type of violence below the level of attempted murder is not sufficient to obtain a quick dissolution of marriage.
Divorce is granted on the grounds of adultery, such as if one spouse repeatedly pleads with the other not to go to a notorious place and does not respond and if one of the spouses appears to have a sexual deviation.
The lawyer clarifies that for the alimony lawsuit, it must be linked to the main lawsuit, that is, the lawsuit of desertion, nullity, or annulment, and the spiritual courts shall rule it from the date of filing the lawsuit or six months before that at the most.
The wife has the right to request expedited alimony during the court proceedings, and it is decided upon by the spiritual court before deciding on the basis of the desertion, nullity, or annulment lawsuit.
And the court’s decision on desertion includes alimony in the event the wife demands it, but in the case of the issuance of the decision of nullity or annulment of the marriage, the maintenance is not considered obligatory for the husband, but the woman has the right to claim compensation if the husband bears the responsibility for ending the marriage, and the woman’s right to alimony falls in all Christian denominations if she commits violations to her husband’s marriage rights.
In religious courts, the concept of “nushuz” or disobedience applies to a woman who has left the marital home and refused to cohabit with her husband. The court may order the woman who has left the marital home to cohabit with the husband, and if she refuses, the court has the right to rule that she is rebellious, which can often be used to forfeit her right to custody unless she provides a legitimate reason for leaving the marital home.
“It is clear from the text that a divorced woman is deprived of alimony, as there is no revocable divorce, either annulment or nullity, and women are deprived of their rights in case of disobedience. Therefore, provisions for alimony for the divorced woman are not obligatory, and they will not have the importance or value that these courts protect,” says Hawija.
In all religious sects, personal status laws stipulate that the husband’s duty is to support the wife and his family, while her duty is limited to child care and cohabitation. Under these laws, the husband must provide for his wife and child, including providing food, clothing, shelter, and other living expenses.
As for the wife, she must cohabit with the husband in the marital home, and there is an absence of clear legal criteria that determine the amount of alimony. Divorced wives often receive amounts that are not sufficient to support them, and there is no alternative mechanism to support them economically during the long procedures.
The husband’s obligation to support the wife automatically falls as soon as a judgment is issued ending the marriage, and once the marriage ends, the husband is no longer obligated to financially support his ex-wife, regardless of her needs, his ability to support her, or her financial and non-financial contribution to the marriage.
Constant suffering shakes faith
According to the three women’s accounts, there is a societal disagreement about the wife’s exposure to abuse in marital disputes within the corridors of the spiritual courts in Latakia.
While some people admit that there are privileges and preferences given to the husband at the expense of the wife, and violations that affect the woman and make her far from justice and equality with the husband, others deny that the woman is subjected to prejudice in general or derogation from her marital rights in particular. They consider that the wife receives more than she is entrusted with, as women are responsible for managing family affairs and raising children, and therefore society recognizes her status and role but places her under the husband’s supervision.
Enab Baladi addressed its questions to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Latakia via email, but the questions did not receive any response from the Archdiocese until the date of publishing this investigation.
The questions relate to whether there is actually a lack of seriousness in resolving some marital disputes, which exposes the archbishop to questions about his objectivity at work, the extent of the independence of spiritual court rulings, the reasons for the long-term issues that affect the wife by holding her alone the consequences of the failure of the marriage, and the number of marriage contracts and divorce provisions issued in Latakia to understand and analyze the course of marriage and divorce cases.
Enab Baladi also contacted four Syrian Christian clerics with different religious positions, but no one answered their questions, in addition to the Secretary of the Archdiocese of Homs and its environs, Father Youhanna Shahoud, who did not provide any information to the investigation team.
Enab Baladi spoke with Reverend Nima Saliba from the Greek Orthodox Church in Mount Lebanon, who said that “the length of litigation in divorce rulings is according to the case file, just like any other case, according to the defenses and according to the requests of those who file the case.”
Father Saliba Pointed out that it is very likely for the case to remain unresolved for four years because, in some cases, you need to summon a psychological expert or several psychological experts, and these things all play a role in the duration of the litigation.
Reverend Saliba recommended resolving the problem of long-standing cases by “the submission of a divorce suit for both parties after they have lived for a period of three years of desertion” or “introducing mediation to intervene in the case and reach a solution that satisfies both parties, and this is a common measure within the family and clan community.”
Existing laws and regulations related to the conduct of relations between spouses are subject to specific tremors and problems in all religious courts in Syria of all kinds. This situation, in turn, exposes marriage and family experiences to real crises, which may affect individuals’ trust in the religious system to which people belong.
International human rights laws guarantee women’s equality during and after marriage, and Article 16 of the CEDAW Convention (The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women), which Syria ratified in 2003 (with a number of reservations), obliges states to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations, and ensuring that women and men enjoy “the same rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution.”
Similarly, Article No.23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees equality between spouses “at the time of marriage, during its establishment, and at its dissolution.”
According to Father Saliba, all these crises are “a main cause of hatred between individuals and the church, and there must be modern reforms to Orthodox laws based on the principle of preserving the dignity of women and people.”
Najeeb George Awad, a Syrian academic researcher in Eastern Christian thought and Christian theology, told Enab Baladi that the plurality of personal status laws led to differences in the treatment of Syrians with issues related to the pivotal aspects of their lives and the lack of seriousness in developing the provisions of these laws “of course, has a negative impact” on their religious life, as these courts base their rulings on the religion in which they believe.
Awad added that erecting barriers to women wishing to end abusive or unhappy marriages “affects people’s relationship with the church and priesthood, as the church sometimes becomes a source of hostility to people.”
This enmity becomes more apparent, according to his description, “when divorce cases and other issues are exploited by some priests to extort the claimants financially and to rule sometimes with the oppressor against the oppressed for reasons related to either money or the preference of one party over another for family reasons and private relations.”
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