Jordan Court Orders Christian Mother Jailed
Eleven-Month Child Custody Standoff Still Unresolved

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, January 24 (Compass) -- A court in northern Jordan has ordered
a Christian widow sent to jail for 30 days if she refuses to hand over
her two minor children to be raised as Muslims.

Siham Qandah was notified by telephone at her home in Husn four days ago
that a court warrant for her arrest had been issued January 16 by the
Irbid Court of First Instance. According to the caller, unless she
immediately surrendered custody of her daughter Rawan, 14, and son Fadi,
12, to their court-appointed Muslim guardian, she would be arrested and
sent to prison.

Qandah was shocked by the court order, since she had received firm
assurances from high-placed officials in Amman three months ago that a
solution would be found for her to retain custody of her children, who
have been raised as Christians.

"Siham was told [in October] to go back to her home, put her children in
school again, and relax, because no one would be allowed to touch her,"
a close friend commented.

But once again, Qandah and her children no longer feel safe in Husn.
With a week left in their winter school break, Rawan and Fadi are
"living from house to house," a close relative told Compass today.
"After this week, it would be very dangerous for them to stay at home.
And if the police find their mother, they may take her to prison."

As soon as Qandah's lawyer obtained a copy of her arrest warrant three
days ago, he filed an appeal for a temporary stay on the order.  The
Irbid court has issued no decision on the appeal, although it is
expected to do so early next week. Until the court responds officially,
Qandah was told, she is protected from arrest.

"But even if the judge accepts the appeal," one of Qandah's brothers
told Compass today, "they are going to delay only for one week, or at
most two weeks. So we don't know what will happen then."

"The appeal is just buying time," a friend in Amman agreed. "I don't see
any hope."

After a four-year legal wrangle, Jordan's Supreme Court made a final
ruling last February that Qandah must relinquish her children. But
Jordanian authorities have not yet enforced it, apparently due to
international media coverage and appeals to the Jordanian royal family
to resolve the case.

The youngest of 10 children, Qandah has two sisters living in Canada as
well as a brother pastoring a Nazarene church in Illinois. Her brother
in the United States has offered full support for her and her children,
if they are allowed to leave Jordan.

But Qandah's children are blacklisted by court order from leaving
Jordan, although Qandah herself is not.  And so far, Western governments
have been unwilling to cause a potential flap with Jordan by offering
visas to her and her children.

In the face of growing diplomatic inquiries into the moderate Arab
state's handling of the case, recent developments are being watched
closely by Prince Hasan, brother to the late King Hussein.  On November
14, Jordanian King Abdullah II was reportedly briefed on the young
widow's judicial dilemma.

According to one of Prince Hasan's advisers monitoring the case,
government officials cannot "play around" with the ruling of the
nation's highest judiciary court, which is constitutionally independent.
"But we are trying our best to find a way to defer the matter, until we
find a solution," he told Compass.

"She is terrified. I know that," he admitted. "But I hope, I hope
nothing will happen."

The drawn-out custody case is based on the sole "evidence" of a highly
irregular document claiming that Qandah's Christian husband had secretly
converted to Islam several years before his death. Under Jordanian law,
that automatically makes his minor children Muslims, as well.

Qandah found the claim preposterous, since the so-called "conversion"
certificate was written and signed by two Muslim witnesses, with only a
scrawled "X" for her husband's signature. But she could not legally
contest it, since it was certified by an Islamic court. As a Christian,
she could not even draw her children's inheritance benefits, but was
forced to find a Muslim to be their court-appointed guardian.

So she tracked down her long-estranged brother, who had converted to
Islam as a teenager. Now a mosque prayer leader, he agreed to be the
children's legal guardian. But when he later learned the children were
enrolled in Christian religion classes at school and becoming active in
the local Baptist church, her brother began to object.  In May 1998, he
filed a civil case demanding custody of her children in order to raise
them as Muslims.

"Despite all this, the Lord has put a peace into her heart," one of
Qandah's friends told Compass today. "But she is tired from all of this.
And she knows that even if she somehow wins the case against her
brother, he will still be after her, even to the last day of his life."

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