Couples will be able to have one of their religious leaders carry out mediation out of court, after which they reconcile or divorce
Non-Muslim couples to be able to marry and divorce through churches in UAE
Non-Muslim couples will be able to get married and divorced through churches of their own faith, rather than Abu Dhabi courts and Sharia.
Couples will be able to have one of their religious leaders carry out mediation out of court, after which they reconcile or divorce.
Christian leaders are in talks with the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department and there are plans to involve Hindu leaders and those of other religions.
“We do not want to impose a religious rule on non-Muslims. They now have options and this is now every individual’s legal right,” said Dr Salah Al Junaibi, director of institutional communications at the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department.
“Instead of non-Muslim couples seeking to settle their marital disputes in civil courts that are based on Sharia, they can now get a binding settlement by a non-Muslim arbitrator, such as a priest at their place of worship.
“In this instance, the role of mediation can be handled and authenticated by the church.”
Mandatory mediation sessions with court counsellors, often conducted in Arabic with translators present, will no longer be necessary.
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Disputes over assets and custody of children will also be overseen by church officials, as opposed to adjudication under Sharia.
The courts' main involvement will be a final stamp on divorce papers. It is not yet known whether any of the other emirates will follow suit.
The change in the law is part of a broader legal review by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs.
Last month Sheikh Mansour established a personal affairs court for non-Muslims which includes a registry that allows expatriates to state where their assets go when they die.
Until then, Abu Dhabi had no way of registering wills drafted in the UAE or an expat’s home country. Sharia was applied in the event of an expat’s death, which often meant a drawn-out process as extended family were contacted to make claims for assets.
“There are more than 200 different nationalities living in harmony and peacefully in the UAE,” Dr Al Junaibi said.
“The new law is a necessity to accommodate so many different cultures with different beliefs and faiths, and giving them access to their legal rights.
"They now have the option to choose whether they want to follow their church, Sharia or the laws of their home country.”
The involvement of a religious mediator is one of three routes to the dissolution of a marriage.
Currently, any non-Muslim expats divorcing would go through civil courts, which are based on Sharia. A second choice is to be divorced under the laws of their their home country but they would be required to take documents, translated and attested, to court. They must also go through mandatory mediation sessions.
"Mediation and arbitration or ruling can be done by the church. The role of the court will be to only monitor the due process,” Dr Al Junaibi said.
"The arbitration issued by the church will be legally binding and enforceable by Abu Dhabi courts."
Couples who married abroad can return home to divorce but for long-term residents, including those with assets here, the process may be complicated.
Dr Abdul Hameed Al Hosani, managing director of Abu Dhabi’s Court of Cassation, acknowledged the need for a separate legal system for expats.
“It was not logical to have Arabic-speaking, Muslim counsellors or judges adjudicate cases involving non-Muslims, who don't even speak the same language or follow the same laws,” Dr Al Hosani said.
“Many expats prefer not to have their divorce processed under Sharia, mostly because they do not know Sharia or are uncomfortable with being judged under a law that they do not understand and don’t believe in.”
It will be up to each church leader to determine whether they want to take part. Many welcomed the moved but said they hoped mediation could be an opportunity to keep couples together.
They said expats who married in civil ceremonies abroad would need to opt for the civil court and Sharia system.
Their involvement would begin when a couple looking to marry or divorce submits an online application, rather than visit the court.
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Explainer: Divorces in Abu Dhabi
A pastor, for example, would meet with the couple at their church or a place of their choosing. Judicial authorities would not be present but would monitor the case and record the outcome.
“This is a very progressive move from this country, to be giving non-Muslims the right to not be ruled under Sharia,” said Pastor Joseph Faragalla, head of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Evangelical Church.
For expats who married in civil ceremonies, he said the issue was further complicated.
"We cannot dissolve a marriage that we do not recognise, Mr Faragalla said.
"But we are happy to offer them counselling. It is our overwhelming duty to help people to find happiness and resolve their problems."