Almost three decades into their childless marriage, Amal Ibrahim, 50, and Farouk Fawzi Boulos had resigned themselves to the fact that they would never be parents.
Then a miracle happened. Ibrahim — a Coptic Christian — found in 2018 an abandoned newborn in the washroom of the Saint Mary Coptic Orthodox Church, located in Cairo's predominantly Christian district of Shubra.
After consulting with senior clerics at the church, the couple decided to adopt the baby who was only a few days old at the time. They thought their prayers for a child had been answered.
The boy, who was named Shenouda by his adoptive parents, was baptized and had a cross tattooed on the inner wrist of his right hand to depict his faith.
In the predominantly Muslim society in Egypt, Christian names and tattoos of a cross distinguish Coptic Christians from the rest of the population.
Egypt's Christians, who make up around 12% of the population, often complain of discrimination and exclusion from high-level public posts. Incidents of sectarian violence are not uncommon and perpetrators of attacks on Christians are rarely held to account.
“Adopting Shenouda enriched our lives,” Ibrahim told Al-Monitor. “We treated him as if he were our own biological child, enrolling him in the church choir and in karate classes.” She hoped the boy would grow up to serve in the church.
The couple was grateful to have Shenouda in their lives; decades of anguish and distress inflicted on them by a social stigma around infertility were finally over. In the conservative patriarchal society, girls are raised to be mothers. While the societal pressure to bear children is greater on women, men, too, are conditioned to believe their manhood is incomplete until they have a child to carry on the family name.
The family lived happily for four years; nothing could ruin their happiness, or so they thought. But things changed in February 2022 when Boulos’ niece filed a report with the police accusing the couple of kidnapping what she alleged was a Muslim child. Ibrahim believes that envy and concerns that Shenouda would inherit his adoptive father's possessions in the event of the latter's death were behind the complainant’s “reckless” act that “turned our lives upside down."
DNA tests taken by Shenouda and his adoptive parents confirmed that they were not the boy's biological parents; the boy was subsequently placed in an orphanage at the behest of Ministry of Social Solidarity officials and has since been denied visits by his adoptive parents — save for one brief, emotional visit on Dec. 31, 2022.
For 10 months, the couple's repeated pleas to see Shenouda fell on deaf ears. But in late December, ministry officials had an abrupt change of heart as they granted the couple permission to see their adopted son at the orphanage.
Boy had his name changed
Much to their despair, they found the child “confused” and “slightly distant.”
“There was something off about him,” Ibrahim told Al-Monitor.
The boy had had his name changed to Youssef, after being registered as a Muslim by the Ministry of Social Solidarity. Any unidentified child is classified as a Muslim in the eyes of the state.
Egypt's family law is based on Islamic Sharia that forbids adoption. The Ministry of Social Solidarity introduced the “kafala” (guardianship) system, whereby a family can take in an orphaned child — or a minor who has been abandoned by his parents — and voluntarily commit to providing for his/her needs and education. Unlike in adoption cases, however, kafala parents can neither give the child their name nor is the latter entitled to inheritance from the family.
A security source who refused to be named told Al Monitor, that this is not an isolated incident.
"Christian girls that get pregnant out of wedlock, abandon their newborns in or outside the church ; it is not uncommon for priests to then give the babies away to childless couples or families they know will look after them,” the source said.
In Shenouda's case, he argued the priest gets big part of the blame. “The priest that handed the baby over to the couple ought to have informed the [Egyptian] police prior to the adoption."
Once a report is filed, security agencies launch a probe to find out the faith of the child's biological father: if the latter is Muslim, the child is registered as a Muslim and the law prohibits his/her adoption by a Christian couple.
Najeeb Gabriel, the couple's defense lawyer, has filed a petition with the Public Prosecutor's Office, requesting that Shenouda be reunited with his Christian family on grounds that Christianity does not forbid adoption. He told Al-Monitor that eyewitnesses — including the pastor of the church where the boy was found — had given firsthand testimonies in court of the moment the baby was discovered at the church. “Therefore, he is undoubtedly a Christian,” Gabriel said. “There has been no evidence to the contrary, so I cannot understand why the verdict has been delayed.”
A trial hearing at the beginning of February was adjourned until March 18 to give prosecutors time to review all the documents. On hearing the judge’s decision, Ibrahim, who was in the courtroom at the time, broke down sobbing. She had earlier taken to social media to ask supporters to join her in court to show their solidarity. The courtroom was packed with dozens of sympathizers and rights advocates who are closely following the case.
In recent days, Ibrahim’s despair has turned to anger. “They [the authorities] talk about human rights, yet they took my son away from me and placed him in an orphanage,” she said.
Ibrahim has appealed to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to intervene to bring back Shenouda, according to Copts United, a website that covers the issues of Copts in Egypt.
Shenouda’s case has caused uproar on social media in recent weeks. Christians and Muslims alike have expressed their solidarity with the couple, with some urging the authorities to prioritize humanity over religion.
The case has also provoked impassioned debate in the media on children’s rights, particularly the right of a child to live within a safe and secure family environment. It also placed Egypt's adoption laws under scrutiny.
In an op-ed published on the English-language Ahram Online website at the end of December, Moushira Khattab, the head of Egypt's National Human Rights Council and former secretary-general of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, spoke of the country's commitment to protecting its children. "Egypt was among the first countries to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,” she said.
Khattab noted that research in various countries had shown the harmful consequences of placing children in foster care institutions and urged the government to return Shenouda to his family.
The National Council for Human Rights announced that it would join the couple's defense team and released a statement reiterating Khattab’s call and denouncing the boy’s forced separation from his family as a flagrant violation of both the constitution and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
While Al-Azhar has yet to issue an official statement on the case, Ahmed Tork, a prominent Islamic scholar interviewed on El Balad TV in October, argued that Shenouda’s case was “not a religious matter.”
“Humanity dictates that any newborn found abandoned should be taken off the streets and cared for without his faith being questioned,” he said. “No child is born Muslim; religious identity should be determined at puberty, not before.”
But the sheikh’s words appear to have been overlooked by the authorities. Ehab Ramzy, a Coptic Christian member of the parliamentary Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, told Al-Monitor that the fact that Shenouda had already been registered as a Muslim by the authorities complicates the situation. “As a Muslim, it is forbidden by law to be adopted by a Christian family, which leaves us with little or no hope that he will be reunited with his adoptive parents in the future,” he said.
A long-awaited Unified Personal Status Law for Egypt's Christians drafted by the Coptic Orthodox Church along with representatives of Anglican, Protestant and Catholic churches has been reviewed by the Ministry of Justice. The latter has submitted the bill to the Council of Ministers for review and endorsement before it is put to a final vote in the House of Representatives and signed into law. While the law's provisions will regulate matters related to marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance for Christians, it lacks provisions regulating adoption, according to Ramzy.
“Shenouda's case has shown our dire need [as Christians] for an adoption law,” he said. “The next trial hearing on March 18 will not only determine Shenouda's fate, it will also determine the fate of the entire country, signaling whether Egypt is on its way to becoming a secular state or a theocratic country, one where Sharia is imposed not just on Muslims but on all citizens.”