The orphanage was a great mercy for Amir.
The 14-year-old Jordanian boy, whose last name is being withheld because he is a minor, was bullied in school after his father died. Then his mother, who was mentally ill and violent, was deemed unfit to parent. If not for a Christian orphanage, he wouldn’t have had any place to go.
But Nisreen Hawatmeh, director of Sanadak (“Your Support”), the evangelical ministry that provides psychological support to Amir in the orphanage, isn’t happy with how the story ended.
“Orphanages are very good in Jordan,” she said, “but not compared to a loving family.”
For Amir, however, a loving family was not available. Adoption is prohibited in Jordan.
The same is true in much of the Middle East. Islamic law forbids adoption. Children without parents or extended family are cared for by kafala, a system of child sponsorship that can include orphanages and foster care. But grafting a child into a new family is not allowed, because of how that would impact family lineage and the inheritance of biological children.
For Muslims, at least. Sharia law grants non-Muslims wide latitude to live according to their religion’s understandings of marriage, divorce, and inheritance, but it is often unevenly applied. In Jordan, constitutional amendments in 2014 permitted Christians—who make up only 2 percent of the population—to draft distinct legal statutes to govern Christian family life, giving them the opportunity to change the adoption rules that apply to them.
And they chose not to.
“Our problem is not the government,” said Haytham Ereifej, a Christian lawyer. “It is within our own community.”
Within the past year and a half of intense interchurch negotiations, the Council of Christian Denominations considered adding adoption processes to some drafted legislation reforming inheritance laws for Christians. The proposed reform, unanimously approved by the council, said women should receive equal inheritance.
It said nothing about adoption. Inheritance for women has been deemed more urgent. Even with unanimous support from the council, the law still faces an uphill battle. Some Christian leaders are quietly opposing the drafted change in inheritance laws, Ereifej said, worried about how families will lose a share of their wealth when a daughter marries outside of her tribe. The nine Christian lawmakers in parliament are reportedly divided. The rest of the legislators will look to them for direction and so may vote it down.
That’s bad news for the children who might have otherwise been adopted. Between 7,000 and 14,000 children in Jordan are believed to have lost both parents. As many as 70,000 have lost one parent, according to the Ministry of Social Development.
No one knows how many might have benefitted from adoption, if that were a possibility in Jordan. Ministries like Sanadak, which was founded in 2016 with support from a consortium of evangelical churches, are committed to keeping vulnerable children with their parents whenever possible. The second choice is placing them with relatives.
For a small group of children, though, adoption would be a redemptive and life-transforming option, if it were available in Jordon.
The other group hurt by the failure to reform adoption law is Christian couples looking to adopt.
Many who struggle with infertility long to have children and seek adoption. For Christians, there is often an added theological dimension that makes adoption desirable.
“When Christians seek to adopt children, they are imitating God, who adopted them,” said Imad Shehadeh, president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary. “The adoption process is a theological and solemn declaration, bestowing full and legal rights of an heir.”
People in the region say they’ve heard of Christian couples who can’t have children and are so desperate that they go to Syria and bribe a doctor to forge an orphan’s birth certificate.
In Lebanon, Christians make up roughly one-third of the population and have long enjoyed the right to adopt. Charlie Costa, a Baptist pastor and magistrate in the evangelical family court in Beirut, said he personally receives about 30 inquiries from Arab Christians every year. Many of them are from outside the country, hoping to find a way to adopt through proper channels in Lebanon.
To secure the legal right to adopt in their own nations, Costa said that Christian advocates should pursue quiet diplomacy, appealing to local Muslim allies, international human rights organizations, and Western governments. Most Middle East governments are less concerned about restricting Christian rights than about avoiding backlash.
“It all depends upon the authorities to approve,” he said.
Most Muslims aren’t concerned with how Christian handle family issues. But Christian adoption can spark intense controversy—especially in the rare case of unknown parentage. In Islam, every child is thought to be born a Muslim, and an abandoned baby should not be raised apart from the true faith.
Egypt, which also forbids adoption, has enthusiastically endorsed the kafala system to provide foster homes for around 11,000 children currently in residential care. Some of these are in Christian orphanages, most still connected to at least one parent. Around 140 Christian families have been approved for their care. Kafala Christian Child, which is endorsed by the Coptic Orthodox Church, is raising awareness and has, thus far, facilitated the placement of two children in foster care.
The country has been rocked, however, by the national soap opera of a secret Christian adoption.
In 2018, a two-day-old boy was abandoned in the bathroom of a church. A priest found him and gave him to an infertile couple, who named the child Shenouda. The couple obtained a fake birth certificate and for the next four years raised him as their own. They were then reported to authorities by a niece who was apparently jealous and worried about her share of future inheritance.
Police initially declined to press charges, noting the boy seemed well cared for and loved. But given the law, Shenouda was removed from his home and placed in an orphanage.
There was a great popular outcry on the family’s behalf, however, and the grand imam of al-Azhar, the foremost institution of scholarship in the Sunni Muslim world, identified an Islamic precedent allowing a child found at a church to be considered a Christian.
Shenouda was set to return to his adoptive parents and be processed officially under the kafala system. Then the same niece brought a claim that her cousin had conceived the child with a Muslim man and so—even though she returned to Christianity—the boy could not be considered Christian. A DNA test on Shenouda, however, disproved this, and he was reunited with the couple.
Egyptian Christians, like Jordanians, have had the opportunity to reform this system and haven’t taken it. A proposed draft of family law for Christians does not include anything on adoption.
“It is clear adoption is allowed in Christianity,” said Samira Luka, an evangelical member of the National Council for Human Rights. “Our council supports this, but internally. We still have to discuss, and state our clear opinion.”
Some evangelicals hope that, in the coming years, Christians will work together to reform adoption law.
“Things should be done differently,” said Jack Sara, general secretary of the Middle East and North Africa Evangelical Alliance. “If it is within the capacity of the Christian community to advocate for such rights, I would encourage them to do so.”
Sanadak served 550 Jordanian orphans last year. Adoption would still be third best compared to staying with the birth family or with relatives. But Hawatmeh said that, as a last resort for children in orphanages like Amir, it would be a nice option to have.
“Our heavenly Father’s heart is for the orphan,” he said. “This is why the Bible says, ‘God sets the lonely in families’” (Ps. 68:6).
Jayson Casper is CT’s Middle East correspondent.
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