Egypt's Al-Azhar releases fatwa supporting Coptic foster parents in Shenouda custody case
In a recent fatwa released by Egypt's Al-Azhar institution that is likely to end a widespread debate on the religious affiliation of a five-year-old child found inside a church by a Coptic Christian family in 2018, the highest Sunni Islamic institution in the region asserted that five-year-old Shenouda had to follow the religion of his foster Christian parents.
The fatwa (religious edict) indicated that if a child – who has no family - is found inside a church by a non-Muslim person, the baby has to follow the religion of the person who located him or her. The fatwa was released in response to the question posted on the website of the Azhar international centre for online edicts.
Azhar is the highest Islamic authority in the region.
About four years ago, a Christian couple, who could not have a child, found a few-day-old baby unattended inside a church. They decided to raise him as their own, issued him a birth certificate and named him Shenouda.
A family member who had a feud with Shenouda's foster parents took revenge and reported their secret to the police, which led to the child being taken by the authorities by force.
Shenouda was then put at an orphanage where his name was changed to Youssef and he became Muslim by force under the pretext that "a human is inherently born as Muslim."
Since then, the Coptic couple has been going through a legal fight for the custody of the child.
Earlier last week, an administrative court declined to rule in a lawsuit filed by the foster family of Shenouda to regain custody of him due to "the lack of jurisdiction".
The family's lawyer, Naguib Gabrial, was quoted by local media as saying that "the Azhar edict would reinforce the legal status of the foster parents in their endeavours to gain custody of their adoptive child."
The case of Shenouda's custody triggered shockwaves across the country and prompted human and children rights groups to call for his return to his foster parents.
Adoption is illegal in Egypt based on Islamic Sharia, but a Muslim family can foster a child while s/he keeps their name. Yet adoption is allowed in Christianity.
In Egypt, Christians can only foster a child if s/he lives at an orphanage annexed to a church. Usually, church orphanages host children whose parents died or are too poor to support them. Otherwise, any unidentified child is considered Muslim by default.
Christians in Egypt are forced to follow Islamic Sharia in most matters, except marriage and divorce.
The percentage of Christians in Muslim-majority Egypt has never been officially released. But it is believed they make up approximately 10 to 15 per cent of the 103 million population; most of them are Coptic Orthodox and are among the world's oldest Christian communities.