Peshawar: 31-year-old Masih lives in a two-room house with his three wives and seven children. Apparently, he does not care much for Christianity or the Christian family law, nonetheless, he believes that being a polygamist does not mean that he has deserted his faith.
Masih married when he was 19. Five years later, he fell in love with a girl among his relatives. In order to solemnize the second marriage, he converted to Islam, as in Christianity second marriage is forbidden. He again converted to Islam to get married for a third time at the age of 28.
He believes that at heart he is still Christian but he had no other option to remarry in according to the teaching of Christianity. In Christianity marriage is believed to be an eternal bond.
Sitting in his bedroom he points to his 10-year-old son and says they all are following the teachings of Christianity. “I am still following Christianity that’s why I gave Christian names to my children. Still my relatives are not accepting me as a Christian,” he said.
Masih says that though he is happy with life but after his second marriage his other family members disowned him and his family. “It (apostasy) provided a legal room for my marriage, as without conversion it was impossible to remarry in our religion,” he said.
If Masih’s case was tough, it is really hard for church leaders to remarry. A pastor, who is unhappily married, dissolved the contract with his spouse’s consent. Talking to News Lens Pakistan on condition of anonymity, he said that in Christianity there is no concept of second marriage. Keeping with the teaching of Bible he refused to remarry despite his family’s willingness for his second marriage. Both he and his brother have no children. The pastor fears being judged by his followers if he remarries.
Christians in Pakistan
It is estimated that some 96% of adult Pakistanis currently hold CNIC cards, and therefore the total adult population of non-Muslim religions seems to be over 3 million of which 1,270,051 are Christians (731,713 males and 538,338 females). Of these approximately 1.6 per cent of Pakistan’s Christians’ population, about 2.8 million people of a total population, Christians have been in the region since the 17th century.
Christian divorce law 1869
Pakistan’s existing family laws – applicable to Christians only – are about two centuries old. The law grants divorces to Christian couples on four grounds: adultery, conversion, marriage to another or cruelty. These Laws haven’t seen any major revision, since inception by the British, at the time of their rule in India. The Christian divorce law 1869 is largely discriminatory towards women and challenges many fundamental human rights guarantees enshrined in the Pakistani Constitution.
Views of legal and human rights experts
Human Right activists state that the majority Christian community lives on the edge of society, deprived of education, struggling to find jobs and unable to afford to live in large cities like Peshawar. This creates unique socio-cultural issues for the community.
According to the Christian divorce law in Pakistan, a husband has to accuse his wife and her alleged partner of adultery. If he is unable to identify a man, then he has to say “the man is dead, so I could not know his name”, or that his wife is a prostitute, so he cannot name an exact person.
Legal experts say section 10 violates Article 14 of the Constitution of Pakistan, which “guarantees dignity and respect to every person”, and Article 25, which says “all citizens are equal before the law … [and] there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex”.
Minority right’s activist Kashif Munir believes that the state, not the church has the right to adjudicate on matrimonial affairs. “The registration of marriage and divorce involves the state. We cannot say these are purely religious issues.” He said section 10 of Christian 1869 divorce act was in conflict with the dignity of woman.
He said in UK a moderate way is provided to both Christian men and women for the dissolution of the marriage and to part their ways with mutual consent, but in Pakistan, such legal ground is not available.
Haroon Sarab Diyal, member of Promotion, Protection & Enforcement of Human Rights, said the current Pakistani justice system puts Christian women in chains instead of offering a reasonable solution to get out of a failed marriage. He added that a divorce for Christian women stigmatizes her for life, while men can get away because of favourable laws, and the patriarchal structure of the society.
He said that Section 10 has become an unbreakable chain for couples who wanted to dissolve their marriages. “Sometimes men made false claims of adultery against their wives in order to divorce them,” he said. “Meanwhile, some women chose to convert to Islam to dissolve the marriage”, he said.
Reinstatement of section 7 of constitution of Pakistan
In 1981 military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq removed Section 7 of the Christian Divorce Act 1869—Section 7 enabled the couples to approach a court of law for dissolution of marriage on ordinary grounds. After this, streams of Christian women converted to Islam as their only way out of an unhappy marriage and men used adultery charges to seek divorces.
On May 23, 2016, the Lahore High Court reinstated section 7 of the Christian Divorce Act, allowing Christians of Punjab an opportunity to divorce in a dignified way, without resorting to false adultery accusations. Now, Christian communities of other provinces are raising demands for reinstatement of section 7 in their provinces.
The Lahore High Court made the decision of reinstatement of section 7 on a petition filed by one Amin Masih in January 2016. Amin Masih wanted to divorce his wife, but did not want to humiliate her by accusing her of adultery, she had not committed.
Federal Human Rights Minister, Kamran Michael, while endorsing this reinstatement, called for further consultations before a final decision is made on whether or not to sustain the restoration of Section 7.
Views of Church leaders
Church leaders are concerned regarding the amendment. They view divorce as a grave offence against the natural law. They fear that a civil law could make divorce easier and the ratio of divorce will increase in the Christian community.
Pastor at Catholic Church Peshawar, Shezad Murad, said that the age for marriage in Christianity is 18 and by making announcements on three occasions, the church gives the intended couple time to think about it before tying the knot. “We are giving time to couple and other people to think and if anyone has any reservations over the marriage, they can discuss it with Father of concern church. Second marriage in Christianity equals to adultery between a man and women.
Federal Minister for Human Rights Kamran Michael, while presenting his point of view on the matter of divorce in Christianity stated that divine laws could not be changed in the name of fundamental rights. “Marriage is a lifelong and indissoluble union for better or for worse in Christianity – you cannot just amend the laws of God,” said Bishop Humphrey S. Peters. This change in law is to defame our religion. Supporting the changes in the law is like going against the Bible,” he added.
Anmol’s story of divorce
Anmol Masih, 28, left her parents and eloped with a Christian man because her parents were against their marriage. Her parents disowned her. After a year, Anmol become a mother of a daughter. Life changed for the worst, as her husband became a drug addict and tortured her. She consulted her aunt who suggested her a divorce. So Anmol converted to Islam.
Now, Anmol and her daughter live with her aunt. She is not able to remarry. “No one cares about us, we are left at the mercy of the Muslims and Christians alike,” Anmol said with teary eyes.
Divorces in Britain normally result in maintenance allowances provided to the less wealthy spouse—usually the woman—but Anmol said her husband paid her $50 a month but after few months he stopped giving that money too.
Regarding the amendment in the Christian divorce law she argued that the Christian leaders are more worried about church politics instead of helping poor people. “I don’t understand why a law should govern my right to divorce. Despite irreconcilable differences Christian women remain in marriages where only women suffer without any relief from the state and religion,” concluded Anmol.