BEIRUT (ChurchMilitant.com) - Marriage tribunals in Lebanon and the Vatican are colluding with Catholic husbands who convert to Islam, bribe judges and portray wives as psychologically unstable, a Church Militant investigation has learned.
A cabal of clergy, judges, lawyers and psychological experts connive to create and endorse forged documents and falsified reports to win cases against wives and ensure husbands gain annulments and evade paying alimony and support, victims reveal.
In February 2022, the Apostolic Signatura and Rota — the Vatican's highest court — accepted an appeal from a Melkite husband, Samer Maamari (vice president at the American University of Beirut until he was fired), after he converted to Islam.
The high-profile case, fought by Melkite-Catholic Huda Khoury for over 19 years, involves the Melkite archbishop of Sidon, Elie Béchara Haddad, and epitomizes the corruption in Lebanon's Catholic churches.
Apart the from bribery and sexual favors demanded from victims, 80% of annulment cases use Canon 818 (Code of Canons of Oriental Churches) to prove the wife is mentally unstable, an Oxfam research project reported.
Section three of the canon states, "They are incapable of contracting marriage who are not capable of assuming the essential obligations of matrimony due to causes of a psychic nature."
Correspondence obtained by Church Militant shows repeated appeals by Khoury to top Vatican officials, questioning the Holy See's acceptance of her husband's apostasy, which she noted he used "to be allowed, as a Muslim, to marry his Orthodox mistress."
"Is the Rota turning a blind eye to his polygamy, accepting the false scenario put on stage to legitimize the Muslim Shariah marriage to his concubine?" Khoury asked Msgr. Arellano Cedillo, dean of the Roman Rota tribunal.
Khoury's 24-year-old son, Taleed Maamari, wrote to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Apostolic Signatura and Roman Rota in March, asking how the Vatican accepted his father's appeals for annulment after evidence of conversion to Islam was presented to the Holy See.
Taleed Maamari wrote:
It is becoming scandalous and alarming how the Vatican tribunal [is] very keen and willing to protect my father even though he converted to a Muslim [sic], threw his Catholic faith away and shows no sign of regret. My father converted to a Muslim after the Rota sentence in 2015 and converted me as well to a Muslim.
Maamari noted that the Vatican had rejected similar annulment cases by other husbands who converted to Islam and accused Abp. Haddad of encouraging his father to convert to Islam so his father could marry "his mistress, in defiance of the Rota verdict."
Maamari also challenged Haddad's appointment by Pope Francis, in 2021, to be a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts — despite the prelate's refusal to abide by a 2008 directive issued by the Apostolic Signatura.
"Given this fact and that the bishop is an advisor at your council, this poses a severe conflict of interest because this bishop ... and his tribunal in Lebanon are subjects of a complaint to the Signatura," Maamari wrote.
"Archbishop Haddad has several complaints against him at the Signatura tribunal from me and many other women. One woman sent an audio and documents about him to the Signatura. The complaints are for abusing his power as bishop, womanizing, bribery, etc.," Khoury told Church Militant.
According to Lebanese law, Sunni, Shia and Druze men can divorce their wives at will. A Muslim man can even do this outside of a courtroom — and in the absence of his wife — by merely uttering the words "I divorce you."
Because polygamy is legal for Muslim men, Catholic husbands who cannot obtain an annulment sometimes convert to Islam and marry a second wife without divorcing the first wife, writes anthropologist Nelia Hyndman-Rizk in Lebanese Women at the Crossroads: Caught Between Sect and Nation.
Church Militant has obtained a certified English translation of the marriage certificate confirming Samer Maamari's conversion to Shia Islam and his marriage to his second wife — who is an Orthodox Christian.
In a three-page statement, Juliette Wakim, a lay expert in marriage canon law, told Church Militant that canon 8183 is "a tool for rich and powerful husbands to get annulments with no alimony, leaving the weaker spouse, after years of devotion to the family, with no financial support."
"Canon lawyers rely on it whenever there is no definitive and legitimate reason for the annulment of the marriage," Wakim added.
Husbands seeking annulments "present a forged psychological report they have bought. And, after reviewing several psychological reports with a specialist, we found out it was 90 % the same report used for different cases," Wakim noted.
Wakim is cofounder of "Together for the Family," which campaigns to protect family disintegration among Melkite and Maronite Catholics and ensure the best practice of marriage law in ecclesiastical courts.
The organization has documented violations of canon law and malpractice at marriage courts, including breaches of canon 11031 and 2 (ignoring the pastoral steps necessary to accept the annulment claim) and canons 1381 and 1129 1 (the chief justice of the court must attempt to reconcile the spouses without the presence of lawyers).
Church Militant has examined evidence relating to several other Lebanese-Catholic annulment cases, including a blatant conflict-of-interest case where the husband's lawyer is Abp. Haddad's brother in law and Haddad himself was the judge in the case.
Another case involves a wife who had her appeal blocked by the tribunal in Lebanon from being taken to the Vatican Rota. The husband in that case belongs to a powerful political party. Victims are told their cases are rejected by the Rota even though their files have never been sent to Rome.
The Oxfam study stresses the exorbitant costs of the ecclesiastical legal procedures, which include "real bribery" where "an amount of money is paid to influence the court's decision." Women fund their pursuit of justice through financial assistance, loans from family or friends and selling assets like jewelry.
A wife may have to spend from $1,000 to $14,000 to get justice in a Church court. "Fees are higher for things the Church wishes to discourage," a Maronite ecclesiastical judge told the Oxfam project.
Lebanon's marriage tribunals are independent from the state and enjoy little or no government oversight. Lebanon's constitution identifies "personal status law" for 15–18 religious communities, including Maronite, Melkite, Latin and Syrian Catholics — and even has distinct personal status laws for Sunni and Shia Muslims.
In 2015, Pope Francis issued the motu proprio Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, which has helped simplify the annulment process for Melkites and Maronites.
Church Militant contacted officials in the CDF, Apostolic Signatura, Rota and Abp. Haddad's office for comment, but received no response as of press time.