Activists critique, offer suggestions after cabinet approves Christian marriage draft bill
by Shafique Khokhar

The Christian Marriage and Divorce Act 2019 is set to replace two British-era laws. The changes were long overdue, but Christian stakeholders were not consulted. The draft bill has flaws and problems, and leaves too much discretionary power in the hands of the courts.

Lahore (AsiaNews) – The Federal Information Minister announced on Tuesday that Pakistan’s federal cabinet approved “in principle’ the draft bill Christian Marriage and Divorce Act 2019, a long-standing demand by civil society and minority groups.

Christian activists and leaders reacted positively to the much-awaited announcement. However, they also complain that they were not consulted and note several problems in the proposed legislation.

Once approved, the bill, drafted by the Federal Human Rights Ministry, will replace the Christian Divorce Act of 1869 and the Christian Marriage Act of 1872, adopted during the British Raj.

On Monday, a group of experts discussed the bill. They include Mgr Alexander John Malik, bishop emeritus of Lahore, Fr Asif John, vicar general of the diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, Cecil Shane Chaudhry, executive director of the National Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Pakistan, and Peter Jacob, executive director of the Centre for Social Justice in Lahore (CSJ).

According to the People's Commission for Minority Rights (PCMR) and the CSJ, the law has obvious shortcomings and problems.

First of all, for Catholics in the CSJ, in its introduction, the bill provides a definition of who is a Christian, i.e. someone “who professes the Christian faith". However, for them, there is no need to define a believer for this could fuel sectarianism among Christians over their different beliefs.

Art 12 is also not necessary because it requires a ban of marriage and free to marry letter, which already come under the National Advanced Database Registration Authority of Pakistan.

Art 26 threatens privacy rights, personal security and confidentiality because it allows anyone to ask for permission, in writing, at reasonable times and without a fee, to consult the Marriage Notice Book.

Critics also question Art 52 which grants the court the power to dissolve marriages. Adultery cannot be invoked if conjugal cohabitation has been resumed. So, what happens if the adultery goes undetected?

Art 54, which deals with separation, says nothing about assets bought with joint income and co-owned.

Finally, Art 71 grants too much discretionary power to the court to set the alimony for a wife or her trustee.

CSJ executive director Peter Jacob wants the federal government to make the drafting and passing the law more inclusive, and notes that the law on marriage and divorce should explicitly cover alimony, inheritance and child custody.