Maronites Must Choose Between Church, Israeli Law

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Yosef Suleiman is an Israeli citizen and a resident of Haifa who has found himself in a difficult situation: He must choose between accepting the verdict of his religious court or the laws of Israel.

Suleiman, a Maronite Christian, wants a divorce, but cannot afford the alimony the Church ruled he should pay. He cannot appeal the ecclesiastical ruling, because the Maronite High Court is in Lebanon, an enemy country.

In his appeal to the High Court of Justice last week, Suleiman has asked the Catholic Church and the state to have his case heard in the Roman Catholic Court of Appeals in Israel.

In 1987, 11 years after Suleiman and his wife Samira married, they decided to separate. He has lived for several years with another partner, also a Maronite, with whom he has 4-year-old twins. A few years ago, Suleiman asked the Maronite Court to annul his marriage, which it can do according to ecclesiastical law if both partners show they did not understand the marriage vows.

According to Suleiman's attorney, Halim Mahoul, the fact that Suleiman has been living with another woman with whom he has fathered children, and has been separated from his wife for 17 years, are two conditions "that are sufficient to prove that they did not understand the significance of the marriage."

However the court did not accept Suleiman's arguments, and ordered Suleiman to pay Samira high alimony for as long as he lives. Suleiman, an unemployed engraver, decided to appeal the decision.

Suleiman is the first Israeli citizen to challenge the legal system of the Maronite Church, a fairly small Catholic sect numbering about 6,500 members in Israel that has been separated since 1948 from the larger community in Lebanon.

Suleiman's first appeal was rejected by the High Maronite Court in Lebanon. But he was not there to hear the ruling, since Israelis may not travel to enemy countries.

"Why can't a court be established here? Let the Latins [Roman Catholics] hear us," he said.

Since the days of the British Mandate, the law allows religious communities to decide where that court should convene, Mahoul says. However he adds that this cannot always work; a court in Lebanon cannot hear the testimony of Israelis, because it is an enemy country to which Israelis have no access.

"The Church has to change its ways and the state has to see to it that all its citizens have the right to due process," Mahoul adds.

Until 1996, Israeli Maronites were heard by the Roman Catholic religious court. However after the appointment of a Lebanese bishop, Bulus al-Siyakh, to head the community in Israel, it was decided to strengthen ties with the Church in Lebanon. Appeals were to be heard only there, with the appellants in absentia.

"The High Maronite Court is in Lebanon and that cannot be changed, of course. But Suleiman is right. The borders are closed and the court cannot be brought here. The problem requires a solution," sources in the Maronite Church said.