The multi-stranded patriarchal system of religious laws affecting Christians in the Middle East is long overdue for reform.

If a couple are divorcing or separating in Damascus the outcome is decided by holy law. It is the same for all Muslims, Christians and Jews in Beirut, Baghdad, Jerusalem or Cairo. With the exception of Turkey, there is no civil family law in the Middle East. Nor are there register offices for marriages or civil courts for divorce. Citizens have to attend courts run by kadis, priests, bishops or rabbis.

Religious laws have exclusive jurisdiction in marriage, divorce, separation, child custody, alimony, maintenance, adoption, guardianship, etc. Catholics cannot terminate a marriage unless they find grounds for annulment. Only the Orthodox churches allow divorce.

Even though divorce and remarriage are now tolerated in most parts of the western world, the Christian courts are unlikely to be high on the agenda of the two-week conference of Middle Eastern patriarchs and church leaders which began in Rome on Sunday. Alarmed at the drop in the number of Christians in the Middle East — from around 20 per cent before the Second World War to below 5 per cent — Pope Benedict has convened a regional synod. Much has been written about the problems of Arab Christians in the region, but few analysts look to the multi-stranded patriarchal system of Christian religious laws as a contributory reason for dissatisfaction among its 10-15 million Christians.

Jerusalem, like the rest of Israel, has 14 different legal systems covering family law to accommodate the diverse faiths of its citizens. The Jews have one set of laws, so do the Muslims, but the Christian denominations have 10.

As opposed to the Sharia, Druze and rabbinical courts, which are supervised by the Ministry of Justice, ecclesiastical courts have full “autonomy.” Judges are appointed by the churches alone. Unlike the Jews and Muslims, Christian courts have no websites. Nor do they publish precedents of cases or judgments, or allow court reporters or members of the public to attend court hearings.

The way Muslims are subjected to Sharia law is often regarded with distaste in western society, yet Sharia courts in Israel and the West Bank are a beacon of transparency compared to the Christian courts. It is difficult in some areas to even find basic facts, let alone the law used.

While this month's Middle East synod is much-awaited, so are reforms to change this system — inherited from the Ottoman millet system, which recognised the autonomy of the Christian communities to run their own internal affairs, especially religious and civil matters.

Note: Jill, Duchess of Hamilton, spent the past five years, while completing her PhD on Patriarchy, the Dark Side of Legal Pluralism, living partly in the Christian quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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