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Remarrying Catholics complain of unfair discrimination

Hard times for Bangladesh Catholic divorcees

Remarrying Catholics complain of unfair discrimination
Catholics who remarry face a backlash from Church and neighbors reporters, Dhaka and Rajshahi

January 21, 2013

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Xavier Costa (not his real name) got married last month in a civil ceremony that enraged local Church officials and fellow Catholics in his home village in the northern diocese of Rajshahi.

What made them even more furious was the decision by Costa, 51, to arrange a wedding party for friends and family. Officials organized a parish council meeting to prevent him from holding the reception, but the meeting was ultimately called off.

The reception went ahead but only about a quarter of the 400 invited guests decided to turn up.

Costa’s recent marriage was his second trip to the altar, so he faced the same tribulations as many divorced and remarried Catholics in Bangladesh. 

His first marriage, a proper Church wedding, ended in 2010 after years of marital strife and a formal separation. Costa sought an annulment of the marriage – a lengthy process that can take up to two years, with a Church marriage tribunal declaring it invalid after a thorough investigation.

But Costa, a businessman and self-described philanthropist, said he did not want to wait that long to remarry.

“All these years I’ve run from parish council to marriage tribunal to get my first marriage annulled, only to be continually frustrated. So I found my own solution,” said Costa, who never officially filed a case with the marriage tribunal for an annulment.

Church law stipulates that Costa and his family must now be barred from receiving sacraments, at least until his first marriage is officially annulled.

Unofficially, the family also faces other punishments. Fellow Catholics in Costa’s village have refused to interact socially with him.

Hubert Rozario, a parish councilor, says they have every right to do this.

“This is a bad example and without punishment to them others will be encouraged to do the same. We can’t let people defy and insult the Church and society,” he said.

Social castigation and stigma are inevitable for Catholic “marriage offenders” in highly conservative Christian strongholds in Dhaka.

In some areas, they are allowed to participate in social events only if they publicly apologize for their misdeed. Most couples opt to stay away from the Church and community instead of doing so.

Some see the Catholic response to Costa as harsher than Islamic practices in this Muslim-majority country, where extramarital affairs, meddling in-laws and migration for overseas jobs are among the most common issues behind troubled marriages.

“In Islam, marriage and divorce, whether in front of a marriage registrar or in the court, is acceptable if both the parties comply with Islamic rules – two or three witnesses [that can attest to marital strife] and a compensation package for the wife,” said Mufti Ainul Islam, an Islamic law expert in Dhaka.  

Robert Rebeiro, 42, also a Catholic and a businessman, says he has also suffered bitter disappointment and hardship over the Church’s handling of divorce.

Ten years after his wife left him for a Muslim man, he remarried in a civil ceremony aimed at helping him care for his two young children.

“It took seven years to get my first marriage annulled. But I can’t get my second marriage solemnized [blessed inside a Church] because my parish priest has asked me to make a public apology. I would prefer death to such humiliation,” Rebeiro said.

Father Mintu L Palma, judicial vicar of an inter-diocesan marriage tribunal in Dhaka, says Catholics must follow Church rules for reconciliation or annulment in order to keep the uniqueness of Catholic marriage intact.

“Normally a case needs up to two years to be resolved, but it may take more if both parties don’t cooperate,” the priest said.

Currently, two inter-diocesan tribunals oversee marital disputes for about 350,000 Catholic in seven dioceses across the country.

A complainant needs to submit a written application along with a 30,000 taka (US$ 375) fee for an official marriage annulment, which is initially placed with the local parish priest and later transferred to the tribunal.

The tribunal investigates the case for as long as needed and declares the marriage invalid if if finds just cause, thereby allowing both parties to remarry within the Church.

About 700 Catholic marriages take place annually and 15 percent of them have a troubled married life, Fr Palma says.

Many couples seeking to separate prefer divorce and remarriage in civil proceedings because it takes less time and money.

The Catholic Church in Bangladesh has developed tools for marriage preparation, education and reconciliation. These include a network of family welfare councils for couples suffering marital problems.

Fr Palma says the goal of these councils is not retribution but support, and that not all priests interact the same way with couples considering divorce.

“First of all, we help couples reconcile and in about 60 percent of cases this works,” said Fr Palma.

“But some people want an easy solution and give up if unsatisfied with our intervention. However, we don’t inflict or support humiliation and ostracism,” he said, adding that some priests and parish councils can act unnecessarily harshly in demanding public apologies – a practice the priest described as “inhuman.”

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