An unusual act of Christian unity in Jordan this month could inspire a revolutionary change in the region.
The leaders of all the Christian denominations in the Hashemite Kingdom agreed May 11 on the final draft of a proposed law on inheritance that guarantees equality in distribution between Christian male and female heirs. It would also allow female heirs to ensure their share of inheritance is not distributed to male relatives.
The recommended text, submitted by lawyers and Christian social activists, was years in the making and drafted after repeated appeals by Christian families. It will still need to be approved by the Jordanian government and pass the legislature.
Jordan’s constitution, which doesn’t discriminate based on religion (Article 6), allows for the creation of religious courts that can adjudicate issues of family law such as marriage, divorce, and alimony (Article 109). For decades, Christian ecclesiastical courts have been allowed to work freely and rule in the name of King Abdullah II on all family issues—except on inheritance.
The issue of distributing the assets a deceased Jordanian leave behind is detailed in Article 1086 of the kingdom’s Civil Code, which holds that all Jordanians—irrespective of their religion—must abide by Islamic sharia when it comes to the distribution of an estate. Sharia law gives males twice the share of inheritance that females get; if the heirs are all female, a portion of the estate is given to a male uncle or a male cousin.
In Jordan, as in all Middle East countries (including Israel), all issues of personal status are based on religion. A citizen cannot marry, divorce, adopt, or inherit based on civilian law. Some countries give importance to a will; however in most, a will has moral but not legal powers.
While local Christian communities once enjoyed equal rights in inheritance when they followed Byzantine law, that policy changed with the establishment of the Trans-Jordan emirate in 1921. A few years after the establishment of Israel in 1948, the West Bank (including Jerusalem) became part of the Hashemite Kingdom and so Palestinians there generally fall under the same law when it comes to applying Islamic sharia in relation to inheritance.
Many Christian families put pressure on their female members to relinquish even the half portion that Islamic law stipulates for female heirs. For generations, and especially in rural areas, the idea has been that land ownership by male brothers helps keep valuable land in a family’s domain.
There are stories of Christian men who have pressured a married sister, almost immediately after the death of the family patriarch and while she is still mourning, to sign away her rights in the family land to her male siblings. The problem has become so prevalent—both among Christians and Muslims—that a few years ago the government of Jordan forbade any transfer of land rights to heirs for at least three months after a death.
The current campaign was triggered by some brave women—especially in families with no males—who believe the current law discriminates in favor of male relatives, giving them rights to a home or land to which they had no connection. A campaign initiated in 2018 by Lina Nuqul, a courageous Christian woman from a well-to-do family, mushroomed into a nationwide effort that has now culminated in the approval by Jordanian churches of the draft law.
“I am very happy that this issue has finally been taken seriously,” Nuqul told Christianity Today, “and that the churches have approved it.”
This latest effort follows previous failures in which male Christian members of Jordan’s parliament quashed a prior attempt initiated by Nuqul five years ago. Jordan’s 130-seat parliament has nine Christians, who win their seats in fulfillment of a quota. The rest of the parliamentarians were not willing to change the law for Christians while the Christian parliamentarians were not on board.
The previous impasse might reoccur. This time, however, the Councils of Christian Denominations is on board supporting the change.
There are many Bible verses on managing money, but on gender equality scholars often cite this verse in Galatians 3: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (v. 28). Another verse often invoked about the need to keep an inheritance in the direct family and not divert it to any male uncles or cousins is in Proverbs 13: “A good person leaves an inheritance for their children’s children” (v. 22). And the Old Testament story of the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27:6–8 has the Lord instruct Moses to grant equal inheritance to female heirs.
Today Jordanian women are also much more aware of their rights. And society has changed over the years as most families, especially Christian families, have moved from the more conservative male-dominated village areas to the more liberal cities. Christian families are also smaller in size, which means that there are more cases in which a family of two or three children might not have a male child. Rumors also are afloat that the government and the king are not opposed to the current effort to approve a law giving Christian women equal rights.
Nidal Qaqish, a former council member of the city of As Salt and a member of the Orthodox Society, told CT that the approval of church leaders would not have happened without the strong push from the community. “I know for sure that the public support helped sway the Bishop of Jordan to support it,” he said.
Some observers of the Christian community in Jordan say that while a change is happening among younger Jordanian Christians, the older landowners are still opposed to the idea of equal distribution of wealth—especially land. Some suggest that one way to overcome this problem is to allow males who want to keep land in their family name to compensate their female siblings for the market cost. But most church courts will not deal with such an idea and therefore it will have to be done outside the court system.
Jordan’s population, which has swelled by more than a million to 11 million due to the Syrian refugee crisis, is largely young. A third of all Jordanians are under the age of 13, while the median age is 23.8. Official statistics place the number of urban Jordanians at 91 percent of the population. Christians comprise 2 percent.
Legal experts are divided over the best approach to enact what has been agreed to by Christian activists and the 11 major denominations. Some argue that it needs to be codified into national law and passed in the parliament, while others believe that ecclesiastical courts have the right to apply the new regulation with a minimum of change. One suggestion is to add to the article about sharia law an exception for Christians, in accordance with the 2014 law regulating Christian communities’ personal status issues.
Yacoub al Far, a member of the legal committee drafting the agreement, told Christianity Today that article 109 of the Jordanian constitution provides the power to the religious courts to deal with all personal status issues.
“While there is article 1086 that says all Jordanians must abide by the Islamic Sharia law, the constitution is a higher set of laws and therefore the ecclesiastical courts can simply rule on issues of inheritance without worrying about the lower court article,” he told CT. “At best maybe a word addition saying that Christian courts are exempt from article 1086 … can be voted on to ensure that there is no misunderstanding.”
Jordan, which expects a robust political process in the coming months due to political and election reforms initiated by the king, has seen the revitalization of a multi-party system. Leaders of some of the newly established parties have met with Jordanian Christian activists to gain their membership and support in elections due to take place in 2024. For many Jordanians, including the non-Christian majority, are looking to see if this law will become the law of the land.
Egyptian Christians—the region’s largest Christian community by far—likewise hope that Jordanian Christians will prevail in passing the new law in a relatively conservative country whose king is a direct descendent of the prophet Mohammad. Syrian and Lebanese Christians don’t have this problem of gender inequality in inheritance; in Palestine, the Lutheran and Anglican ecclesiastical courts distribute inheritance equally while Orthodox and Catholic courts have not made the change away from the Jordanian prevailing law that existed before the 1967 Israeli occupation.
The small evangelical communities in Jordan and Palestine don’t have ecclesiastical courts of their own, so they normally resort to the Anglican court for personal status issues. Evangelicals publicly support the new draft law, like the other denominations, despite the fact that they are not able to enforce it in their own court.
“Even though the evangelical council is not represented in the council of church leaders, we are supporting it,” David Rihani, pastor of the Assemblies of God church in Jordan, told CT. “In fact, a number of evangelical lawyers were involved in the drafting of the draft law that the churches’ council later supported.”
In Tunisia, the government approved a law of equality between male and female heirs in 2018, but that decision has not been fully implemented yet. However, in the North African nation the absence of male heirs doesn’t mean that part of a family’s inheritance can go to a male relative.
The Jordanian parliament, now in recess, is expected to reconvene in October. Meanwhile, Christian activists are working hard to lobby their parliamentary representatives to ensure that the current effort produces results that the majority of the Jordanian Christian community is overwhelmingly behind.
Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian Christian journalist working in Jerusalem and Amman. He is a former Princeton University journalism professor and former board member of the Jordan Evangelical Council. Follow him on Twitter @daoudkuttab