In 1858, papal authorities in Bologna kidnapped a seven-year-old Jewish boy named Edgardo Mortara, on the grounds that—since a Catholic nanny had baptized him—he was, according to canon law, a Catholic. Not very different is the case of Shenouda Farouk Bolous, who was found as an infant in an Egyptian church in 2018, and given by a Coptic priest to a childless couple in his congregation. Samuel Tadros explains what followed:
Official adoption was never an option. It is illegal in Islam and hence illegal in Egypt, even for Christians. [The adoptive father’s] niece Mariam was unhappy with the situation. Under Shariah inheritance laws, imposed on Copts as well as Muslims, she would inherit her childless uncle’s estate. Now Shenouda stood in the way. She made her way to the police station in February 2022 and filed a complaint. The parents were quickly summoned and a DNA test was administered. The public prosecutor’s decision was swift. Shenouda was to be taken from them and placed in an orphanage. But it didn’t stop there. Since the child’s parents couldn’t be ascertained, the child was to be automatically considered a Muslim.
Unlike the case of Mortara—who remained a ward of the Vatican until he became an adult—public outcry and a ruling by senior Islamic jurists led to a happy ending in the case of Shenouda, who was returned to his family. But, Tadros writes, the episode says much about the nature of modern-day Egypt, and of the status of dhimmi, or tolerated minority, assigned to its Christians (and, when they remained, to its Jews).
On the one hand, the state authorities had decided that [Shenouda] was Muslim by virtue of having unknown parents, and took him from the only parents he had known. On the other hand, the outcome of the case showcases a state able to make accommodations for the Coptic minority. Which of these is Egypt? The country with a constitution enshrining equality for all its citizens, regardless of their religion? Or the one whose same constitution declares Islam as the religion of the state and the principles of Shariah as the principal source of legislation? The answer is both and neither.