Pope Francis has insisted that his annulment reforms are not a subversion of the Church’s teaching against divorce. But in the Middle East annulments are divorces both in intent and in effect. Indeed, as no states in the Middle East and North Africa, apart from Turkey and Tunisia, have civil marriage and divorce laws, annulments have become an avenue of de facto divorce for Catholics. Unlike in the West, with its civil marriage and divorce laws, in the Middle East annulments have far-reaching civil consequences.

Except for exclusively Islamic states such as those found in the Gulf, all the states in the Middle East have adapted versions of the Ottoman millet system, devolving jurisdiction for family law to “recognised religious communities”. For example, Israel has granted jurisdiction to 14 different religious communities, six of which are Catholic – Latin Catholic, Melkite, Maronite, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Catholic and Chaldean. As none of the Catholic courts grants divorce, like Henry VIII, Arab Catholics often use annulments as if they were quasi-divorces, stretching the canonical rulings beyond credulity.

Although the Catholic Church makes no distinction between annulments issued in, say, New York or Rome, or in Jerusalem or Baghdad, the impact on people’s lives is very different. In the West, the Pope’s reforms are easing the way for some remarried Catholics to receive Communion, but in the Middle East, where religious laws govern marriage and divorce, annulments determine a person’s civil status as single, married or divorced. So for those Arab Catholics trapped in appalling marriages, the Pope’s streamlining of the annulment process will feel like a blessing.

Because of this, it was apposite that the first conference on the Pope’s new rulings on annulments was held in the heart of the Middle East in July. The five-day conference, “Matrimony and ad hoc Rules Governing the Tribunal Procedures”, organised by the Ecclesiastical Court of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Pontifical Lateran University of Rome, was held in a resort hotel on the Jordanian side of the shores of the Dead Sea. “It was not only the first conference held on the Motu Proprio but the first that Professor Arroba Conde, its architect, attended,” explained Fr Emil Salayta, the judge of the Latin Patriarchate court in Jerusalem and president of the conference. “The 90 Catholic judges and lay lawyers for the Arab Christian courts from Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Israel and Jordan who attended wanted to learn how the new laws are applied and to discuss them. There were also ecclesiastical professors from Rome.”

He added that the conference was of special interest to bishops. The new rulings allow them to make judgments themselves within their diocese rather than, as previously, cases going to another court.

In the Middle East, unless a marriage has not been consummated, an annulment is the sole way that an Arab Catholic can legally terminate a marriage and remarry. However, as certainty cannot be applied to all cases, many Arab Christians wanting to divorce resort to converting to another religion such as Islam or the Greek Orthodox Church. Some Catholics prefer this due to the difficulty of explaining to their children how, despite the marriage being voided, they are not illegitimate.

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