Israeli Court Overturns Decision Penalizing Catholic Woman for Refusing to Convert

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The Haifa District Court has asked Catholic bishops to be involved in a divorce case involving a Maronite Christian couple, after overturning an earlier ruling that had awarded compensation to the husband because of his wife's refusal to convert.

Divorce is prohibited in the Maronite Church, an Eastern-Catholic religion with many followers in Lebanon. One recourse available to Maronite couples who want to divorce is conversion.

The husband asked his wife to convert at least temporarily so that they could separate, but she refused. In light of her decision the husband filed suit, asking for compensation based on damages and emotional distress caused his wife's unwillingness to convert. The case, filed last February, was handled by Justice Ela Meraz of the Haifa Family Court.

In her ruling, Justice Meraz, who has served on the Family Court since 2002, sided with the husband and ordered the wife to pay him NIS 50,000 in compensation and another NIS 25,000 for every year she refuses to convert.
“The plaintiff’s wish to formalize the separation is natural, obvious and understandable," wrote Meraz.

"The significance of the defendant’s refusal to even temporarily change her religion is to leave the plaintiff in a binding framework of a marriage that has for all practical purposes not been intact for years. Her refusal is unreasonable and illogical and impinges on the plaintiff’s basic right to establish a new family, based on his beliefs and religion. It also consists of wrongful negligence…the circumstances of this case clearly warrant awarding the plaintiff the opportunity to terminate his marriage. Keeping him within the confines of the marriage amounts to holding him as a hostage to the caprices of the defendant, which do not conform to logic, reason and common sense, as well as showing ill-will."

The judge stressed that “this decision does not take lightly a person’s decision to convert. However, in the specific circumstances of this case, my impression was that the unwillingness to change her religion was not the reason for the plaintiff’s refusal to proceed with the divorce. They seem to stem from extraneous issues which do not justify her withholding a divorce, denying her husband his basic rights for freedom, status and the building of a new family, with all that it entails."

But last week a panel of judges, headed by Haifa District Court Justice Bracha Bar-Ziv, overturned the ruling. Leaders of the Catholic Church had asked to be included in the hearings, based on their claim that any decision by the court would impact Catholic and other Christian communities in Israel. The Israel Bar Association also expressed the opinion that Meraz’s ruling infringes on the authority of the ecclesiastical courts. The council of Catholic Church leaders appealed to the Israel Courts Administration and to the State Attorney in this matter.

The appeals court criticized the family court in the first session. “It may be customary in the Maronite community to undergo temporary conversion in order to facilitate divorce, but this was not proven to the lower court, and we are doubtful whether this is the case," said the ruling. “With that, the court cannot compel someone to act against their religious precepts. The court has therefore asked that Catholic bishops join the proceedings. Under these conditions we cannot uphold the lower court’s decision which must be struck down."

Catholics at prayer in Jerusalem. The Church is concerned about the impact a divorce case could have on local Christian communities.Credit: AP

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