A Pakistani Christian couple getting married in this 2004 file image taken in Lahore. A section of Pakistan's Christian Divorce Act 1869 that was changed in 1981 has now been restored, granting Christian married couples increased freedoms to seek a divorce. (Photo by AFP)
Church leaders in Pakistan have reacted cautiously to a decision by the Lahore High Court that enables Christian couples to divorce for reasons outside of adultery, a motive that previously could only be used by men.
Father Emmanuel Asi, a leading theologian, urged upon the need to review what the restoration of Section 7 of the Christian Divorce Act 1869 means for Catholics because it is a "delicate matter."
"Mutual love is the top criteria in Christian married life," said Father Asi adding that if a marriage was under cultural pressure or was merely a social contract then that poses a big question on the sacrament of matrimony.
"People cannot be enslaved by the law," said the priest who is the executive secretary of the Catholic Bible Commission.
Father Asi was speaking following the May 23 restoration of the section which was last changed by former military ruler General Zia ul Haq in 1981. The general changed the law through an ordinance that required a Christian husband to charge his wife with adultery to seek divorce. He also had to prove it before divorcing her.
With Section 7 restored, a Christian couple can now use the courts to declare their marriage null and void for various reasons.
"There is no simple answer. Vatican II urged rediscovery of church teachings and interpreting the text according to human realities of today. If we fail to do so, we are conservatives," said Father Asi.
However among Pakistan's 2 million Christians there has been a mixed reaction to the changing of the law.
"That is not good news ... it is against church teaching," posted Martin Patrick, a Facebook user.
Church of Pakistan Bishop Jimmy Mathew of Northern Diocese said religious matters couldn't be changed for the sake of legal management.
"Gospel is the final word. Christian families get separated and later resettle but changing the law on holy matrimony is an attempt to defame religion," said the bishop.
"Sometimes when families consult the church for divorce, I suggest the method of 'ex parte decree,' which means filing civil suit against the partner in absentia," Bishop Mathew said. "The court then sends a one-sided argument notice. But this is just to legalize their separation, we do not encourage divorce," he added.
New study on family
The debate first surfaced a few months ago when Amin Masih, a Christian from Lahore, filed a petition against the act claiming he had no reservations regarding his wife's character.
In a study launched in February, Pakistan's Catholic bishops also proposed the inclusion of new grounds for dissolution of marriage.
Citing canon laws, the study proposes that any party can be given rights to present a petition of the dissolution of marriage with a logical reason such as domestic violence, sexual violence, mental or terminal physical illness and intentionally not fulfilling any financial, emotion or physical obligations.
The study — Family/Personal Laws for the Religious Minorities in Pakistan — further stated that restrictive marriage laws could lead to Pakistani Christians considering religious conversion as a way out.
"Christian women used to opt for conversion to Islam in order to get out of troubled domestic situations and this led to other problems," said Cecil Shane Chaudhry, executive director of the Catholic bishop's National Commission for Justice and Peace.
"Divorce on genuine grounds will also help in proper reporting of such cases," said Chaudhry.
He said the restoring of Section 7 of the act was a positive move.