THE BLOG
06/02/2015 09:36 GMT | Updated 06/04/2015 06:59 BST

When Jordan's Sharia Court Allows a Minor to Convert to Islam

n Jordan, a moderate yet socially-conservative country and for long a beacon for religious co-existence in a turbulent region where intolerance and hate speech is on the rise, a Sharia court has allowed a minor to convert to Islam.

The case of "Castro", almost 16, who assumed the name 'Mohammad" two weeks ago after he changed his faith at a Sharia court (Islamic Religious Court) is the first such case involving a minor since the mid 1990's, official records show.

The easy conversion is raising serious questions about dwindling religious tolerance and respect for diversity as more sectarian attitudes creep into government institutions and to an extent in society at large.

Castro's alarming conversion is not being checked by the mainstream media, though there has been a virtual debate in chat rooms and on twitter - and much of it could easily be termed as hate speech and misinformation.

Editors do not want to be seen as encouraging debate on a taboo issue when many Arab Christians, part of the delicate social fabric since the time of the original Apostles, are immigrating to the West to escape growing radicalization and political uncertainty gripping the Arab world.

Touching on this issue might generate unwelcome reactions at a time when Jordanians have been consumed with the fate of Air Force pilot Moath Kassasbeh captured by Islamic state militant in Syria and burnt to death as shown in his execution video released on Tuesday.

Castro's decision itself remains controversial in a society where faith is hereditary, whether among the 25 denominations of the Arab Christian community or inside the majority Sunni Muslim population.

It touches on identity, personal choice, freedom of religion, the definition of rights of humans including minors, the role of religion and state and tribal customs versus national law courts.

And it reflects worrying trends: selectivity in law enforcement and unquestioned powers in the hands of bureaucrats as clearly shown in the story of a second Christian minor whose bid to convert to Islam a week ago was rejected by the same Sharia court that confirmed Castro's change of faith.

How can this be possible, many will ask?.

Well, the government sent out clear orders that it will not tolerate such practices that violate common law which recognizes 18 as the threshold of adulthood -- when a person may legally engage in certain activities including voting and car driving.

Castro managed to change his faith, at least for now, after an adventurous journey from north to south under "protection" of self-appointed "guardians".

But his journey is an eye-opened to many. It reveals a sense of short-sightedness if not indifference and complicity and by all local officials who have dealt with the file, starting with police officers in Castro's northern home town of Irbid, judges at both the juvenile and sharia courts and ending with the chief justice. None of them apparently blinked at the sheer implications of their successive decisions on society, already riddled with various forms of fears.

The government is now trying to find a way out in the Castro case, says a minister involved in the file. It has decided that the Sharia court declaration of Castro's Islam is "null and void" as he has not reached

18 years of age which would allow him to take clear decisions on his faith, one of many civil rights with clear legal implications.

According to this logic, Castro should be reunited with his family.

But this will happen once his family or the ministry of social development files a law suit contesting the Sharia court's decision and requesting its annulment.

Castro's journey to change his faith had many dramatic twists. He told his father he wanted to take a week of holiday with his friends in the Red Sea city of Aqaba shortly before last Christmas but he never returned to his home in Irbid's Turkman neighborhood, where Salafi Jihadi militants exploit poverty and unemployment to recruit followers.

The father reported his son as missing.

Days later, police called him and asked for the family book (collective identity document required for any official transactions with the state) and informed him that Castro did not want to return home as he worried he would be killed because of his plan to convert to Islam.

The anguished father was not allowed to see Castro. The latter was referred to the juvenile court, where a "behavior" specialist employed by the ministry of social development recommended to the court that Castro should be taken into a government-run youth protection center as he was threatened by his family. The court never bothered to hear the views of Castro's family.

After checking in, Castro left the center, telling staff he needed to buy some groceries. Outside, a waiting car drove him to the southern city of Ma'an -- a hotbed of growing religious extremism. After he made his formal request to embrace Islam to the Sharia court there, he was issued a certificate confirming the change of his faith. The Chief Justice endorsed the court decision. By doing so, he went against the same rules that his department issued in 2012. These rules had set clear benchmarks for Jordanians who want to become Muslim under a time-consuming process designed to stop Christians from converting to Islam as a short cut to ending family disputes, including divorce and child custody.

This is what many find the most troubling issue in Castro's case. How can the Chief Justice allow a young man under 18 to change his religion so quickly without asking any questions and treating the matter as a given?

The behavior of these institutions needs serious questioning. They have to be held accountable to safeguard the rule of law in a country built on institutions. This is needed to protect cohesion in a diverse society made up of individuals and communities from different faiths and ethnicities. Such behavior runs against maintaining inter-family ties and does not protect social peace, something for which many citizens of neighboring states envy Jordanians for, especially those taking refuge in the Kingdom to escape growing violence, extremism and radicalization since 2011.

What happened to Castro is a form of child abuse. It shows clear disrespect for a community that forms the wider Jordan.

Let's see what will happen to Castro in the next few days.

For now, police forces need to storm the headquarters of a tribe in Ma'an, where Castro is staying in line with a tribal tradition that obliges a tribe to give sanctuary to any stranger who asks the clan for protection. Once Castro is freed, he will be taken to a state juvenile care center protected by security until the court goes back on its decision so he can return to his family, which scoffs at insinuations that it wanted to kill Castro. They insist that once he turns 18, they will accept whatever decision he takes regarding his faith.

While waiting for the last chapter in Castro's tale to come to an end, we hope that the concerned authorities have learnt a lesson to avoid repetitions with other minors who could be exploited by radical movements looking for recruits in marginalized communities or hardline sheikhs seeking to sow national strife.

It is high time for revising articles in the constitution that place personal status matters in the hands of Sharia and church courts. Jordan also needs a new unified family law to prevent abuses committed with impunity, now enjoyed by Sharia judges and Christian clergymen who run church courts, alike.

Relations between citizens and institutions have to be based on citizenship rights regardless whether a Jordanian keeps his faith or changes it.

We should ensure that the basic rights of citizens are not trumped by issues related to keeping or changing faith especially when it comes to determining custody of children, possession of identity documents and splitting inheritance.

Religion is a personal choice between God and man while the homeland is for all.