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Attempts underway to update Christian marriage laws

A group of activists working for the rights of religious minorities is busy drumming up support for amendments in Christian personal laws to streamline the issues of divorce, maintenance and violence.

A 24-member National Lobbying Delegation (NLD) — whose seven members are from Sindh — is working to get a law passed from the Sindh Assembly that will govern issues relating to the marriages of Christians in order to bring them under regulation through civil laws. The delegation also aims to lobby for passing the stalled updated Christian marriage law in the National Assembly.

However, from the viewpoint of the religious clergy, this will be in conflict with their religious teachings.

The debate seemingly originated when Ameen Masih moved the Lahore High Court a few years ago seeking the court’s directives to end his marriage amicably and without accusing his spouse of committing adultery — the only condition on the path to divorce. Masih wanted to invoke jurisdiction of Section 7 of the Christian Divorce Act, 1869 under which a Christian man can divorce his wife without levelling serious charges like adultery. The Catholic Church does not recognise divorce under any circumstances and has never accepted provisions of the said law, enacted during the British Raj in the Subcontinent. The 1869 law’s section 7 was omitted through the Federal Laws Ordinance 1981 but while hearing Masih’s case in 2016, then-Lahore High Court Chief Justice Mansoor Ali Shah ordered its restoration. The matter was challenged by the Christian clergy in the Supreme Court and remains unresolved to-date.

According to Dr Sabir Michael, one of the seven NLD members from Sindh, in absence of a marriage law for Christians, no lawful recourse is available to govern issues of divorce. He believes that such conditions are adversely affecting women and the matter requires interference from the state to remedy the situation.

Qamar Iqbal, who practiced law in Punjab until 2012 and is currently working in the education department, supports Sabir’s contention. To him, marriage is a social contract which should include multiple grounds other than adultery to form the basis of seeking divorce. “I prefer to be a human first than a Christian,” he asserted.

“In many cases, women keep suffering but their families continue to tell them to reconcile regardless of the difficulties involved,” he regretted, adding that he supports the efforts seeking restoration of section 7 of the 1869 law or its complete revision. “The option of divorce on other grounds, such as among Muslims, should be available for both husband and his spouse,” he stated further.

The draft Christian Marriage and Divorce Bill, 2019, was approved by the federal government but is yet to be introduced in Parliament. If passed, it would replace the Christian Divorce Act, 1869 and the Christian Marriage Act, 1872.

Christians make around five percent of the country’s population and these century-plus old laws affect the lives of the entire community. Many members of the community feel that they need to be updated.

Sabir Michael shared that due to the limits of the archaic law, there are instances in which Christian couples have converted to Islam only to get separated and then marry of their own free will. He pointed out other impractical conditions under the 1872 law such as for marriages to take place before sunset.  “We are also pressing to raise the marriageable age to 18,” he informed.

Reverend Kaleem John, Bishop of the Diocese of Hyderabad (Church of Pakistan), said the 1869 law is in line with teachings of Christianity wherein adultery can be the only ground for divorce and this is adhered to by both Protestants and Catholics.

He informed that marriage in Christianity has got the status of a covenant and is a pledge with God that only death will separate the couple, and refused to comment on the ongoing efforts to update the law.

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