A child taken from his adoptive parents by Egyptian authorities was returned to them, authorities said on Tuesday, after Egypt's highest religious authority intervened to help the pair.
The child was briefly taken into government care because of religious customs that stipulate that all parentless children must be registered as Muslim. Shenouda, 5, had been adopted by a Coptic Christian couple in 2018.
Prosecutors on Tuesday night issued the order for the return of Shenouda who had, following a court order, been taken to a Cairo orphanage in September when he was taken away from his Christian family, converted to Islam and had his name changed.
Prosecutors cited an edict from the country’s Grand Mufti — which stipulated that Shenouda belongs with the family that found and raised him and that he should be allowed to take their faith — as the reason for his return.
The Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt’s highest seat of Sunni learning, had issued a fatwa of its own on the matter on March 23, stipulating that according to Islamic jurisprudence, the child belongs with Amaal and Farouk Fawzy, his adoptive parents.
The couple’s lawyer has repeatedly said that there are no articles of the country’s law which stipulate that Shenouda must be registered as a Muslim. He said repeated appeals on the first ruling were rejected.
The pair filed another lawsuit to have Shenouda returned to them, however, on March 18, the administrative court which was reviewing the case declined to issue a ruling, citing its lack of jurisdiction on the matter.
The first photos showing Shenouda back with his adoptive family were widely circulated on social media on Wednesday morning and were met with a celebratory response.
“Today it feels like my eyesight has returned to me after months of blindness,” Amaal said in a Facebook post.
His return was also lauded by Egyptian rights groups, who had repeatedly campaigned since September to allow him to return to the couple. Heartbroken television appearances made by the couple, predominantly on television networks watched by Coptic Christians, stirred the sympathy of millions around Egypt.
Amaal and Farouk told authorities that they found Shenouda in 2018. He had been abandoned in a churchyard when he was days old.
The pair took him in and raised him as their own, keeping their adoption a secret and waited for someone to return for him but no one has until today.
Since they found him in a church, they assumed that whoever left him was Coptic, therefore, they did not think that they were crossing any religious boundaries.
They were not aware they were breaking any laws, they said.
However, last year, a niece of Farouk’s, fearing that the new child would reduce her inheritance cut, filed a report with local authorities that her aunt and uncle were raising a kidnapped child.
Officials from the Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity came to the couple’s home to investigate the niece’s claims, and upon performing a DNA test on Shenouda and speaking with his parents, determined that he wasn’t their biological son.
Shenouda, which is an exclusively Coptic name in Egypt, was then taken to an orphanage and had his name temporarily changed to Youssef.
On Tuesday, prosecutors ordered that his name be changed to reflect his belonging to a Christian family.
In Egypt, a Muslim-majority country, it is customary for orphans to be registered Muslim.
Adoption is banned in Islam but was allowed for Egypt’s Coptic families until a 1996 law outlawed it for all Egyptians.
Islamic sharia stipulates that while a Muslim family is permitted to take a child in and spend money on them, the child could never take the adoptive family’s name and, more importantly, never be permitted to take a cut of the family’s inheritance.
This law was amended in 2010 under the “alternative families system” which allowed couples to adopt a child of the same religion.
Under the amended law, Muslim couples can adopt a child, however, when registering them with the state, the parents had to choose between using a patronymic, their adoptive father’s first name or their family’s last name, but not both.