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Rulings spark hope for Egyptian Copts fighting Islamic estate law

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Cairo (AFP)

Egyptian Copt Amal Hanna says she is determined to fight the long-standing application of Islamic inheritance laws to Christians, as recent court victories embolden Coptic women.

For decades, Egyptian courts have largely applied Islamic inheritance laws -- which mostly allocate a bigger share of inheritances to men than to women -- to both Muslims and the country's significant Coptic Christian minority.

But Coptic Orthodox customs call for gender equality in inheritance matters.

Hanna has twice been faced with the unbalanced division of family estates.

The first was more than 20 years ago, when a court granted her brother double her share of their parents' property.

Then, after her aunt died last year, another court awarded the entire inheritance to Hanna's brother.

"I was dumbstruck," she said. "It really upset me, especially as my family raised us -- me and my brother -- as equals."

Hanna has appealed against the ruling.

But Christian women's hopes were rekindled late last year after Coptic lawyer Hoda Nasrallah and her brothers were granted an equal share of their father's inheritance.

The November ruling by a Cairo family court took into account a constitutional article allowing Christian principles to be the basis of rulings on the minority's personal status affairs.

Nasrallah's rare victory generated a buzz across Egypt, but it was not the first of its kind.

In 2016, a Christian woman won a legal dispute with her brother, obtaining equal inheritance.

- Overcoming resistance -

Coptic Christians have long complained of discrimination and underrepresentation in Egypt.

They are the largest non-Muslim religious minority in the Middle East, and account for 10-15 percent of Egypt's predominantly Sunni Muslim population of 100 million.

They have also been the target of Islamist militant attacks that have left more than 100 dead since December 2016.

Elizabeth Monier, an expert on Coptic affairs at the University of Cambridge, said applying Christian inheritance rules would meet resistance from within the legal system.

Their application "has had to overcome resistance from entrenched practises and norms, both in the judiciary and society," she said.

Though Nasrallah had already agreed with her brothers to split the estate equally, it took her around a year to have a court rule in her favour.

She said she pursued the case in order to set a legal precedent for other Christian women.

"My fight was about ensuring that the constitution is applied," Nasrallah said.

"Many judges are against applying Christian norms," she added. "It can be even more challenging when the heirs are in disagreement."

Hanna also criticised a lack of legislation forcing judges to apply Christian rules.

In building her case, she said she invoked the constitution and used the 2016 ruling as precedent.

Hanna said she feared her appeal would be rejected, but would keep on challenging the decision.

"I will even take it to the constitutional court if I have to", she said.

- 'Progress' -

Lawyers say the lack of a personal status law for Christians is partly to blame for courts' resistance.

"Coptic males sometimes push for Islamic laws to be applied since it's in their interest," lawyer Atef Nazmy said. "It is vital that a personal status law for Christians be created to regulate these issues."

Christian denominations have for years been locked in talks over a unified personal status law.

They have yet to reach agreement or present a bill to parliament.

Nazmy said issues like divorce were at the core of the divisions.

Egypt's strict Coptic Church applies rigid rules to divorce, granting it only in cases of adultery or conversion to other faiths.

Monier said courts might also resist granting Christian women equal inheritance because they fear Muslim women would seek the same rights.

In 2018, then Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi sparked controversy across the Islamic world by proposing a bill on equal inheritance for Muslim women.

The move drew praise from secularists and women's rights activists across the region, but stern rebuke from Egypt's Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's most prestigious educational institution.

Despite the resistance, Monier remains optimistic.

"That a Coptic woman has taken her case to court and won suggests there is some progress being made," she said.

"This is another step that is part of the journey towards greater gender equality."

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