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As Pope Francis Heads to U.A.E., Christian Family Faces Nightmare in Dubai Sharia Court

Pope Francis arrives to lead the Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter’s square at the Vatican, September 19, 2018. (Max Rossi/Reuters)
The Pope must demand justice for the Zenz family, which is being denied its inheritance partly because of its Christian faith.

Pope Francis will soon make a historic visit to the U.A.E., garnering worldwide media attention and drawing the focus of millions of people across the globe. Doubtless, such an important trip has many objectives, but there is one issue the Pope must not neglect to take up with his hosts: A Christian family is being denied justice in the U.A.E.’s Sharia courts.

Since 2014, when Austrian citizen Franz Zenz died in the Zenz family home in McLean, Va., his wife and daughters have been seeking justice in the U.A.E., where he had worked and owns property. In the U.A.E., inheritance of Dubai-based property is resolved by Sharia courts. Like other Christians and religious minorities visiting or doing business in the country, neither Mr. Zenz’s wife of 41 years, Nicole, his two daughters, Kimberly and Courtney, nor his sister Regina, knew of the difficulties non-Muslims face when seeking to testify in these courts. Nor did they have any idea that Mr. Zenz, who lived, died, and was buried a Christian, after dying could be declared a Muslim.

But that is precisely what happened. In a story that sounds like something from a Middle Eastern soap opera, the Zenz family found its inheritance claims opposed by a Saudi woman living in the U.A.E., Meshaal Khalaf Mohammed al-Amri, who claims that Zenz converted to Islam while living in the U.A.E. and that she and her family are his sole heirs under Sharia law.

In reality, this matter is hardly complicated, and nearly anywhere else, it would have been decided fairly and quickly.

To be blunt, Ms. Al-Amri is a criminal. In her native Saudi Arabia, she is wanted for forgery, counterfeiting, and illegally fleeing the country on a false passport. To support her claim that she married Mr. Zenz, as well as her claim that he converted to Islam, she submitted records that were ruled, both in Saudi Arabia and in the Dubai trial court, to be forgeries. The latter court, to its credit, rejected al-Amri’s claim to have been married to Mr. Zenz. It found that her claimed “marriage” was “unproven,” that her records were falsified, that her witnesses were lying, and that all of the “evidence” was therefore untrustworthy. It ruled in favor of the Zenz family, and that should have been the end of the matter.

But then Al-Amri appealed.

Elsewhere in the world, courts hearing appeals never allow new witnesses to be heard. In the U.A.E., things are different. After sitting on the case for two years, the Dubai appeals court set aside the lower-court ruling that al-Amri’s testimony and the records on which she relied were fraudulent. In an unprecedented ruling, it gave her a second chance, allowing her to bring forth new “witnesses.” And, in a move that should warn foreigners about the fairness of the U.A.E.’s court system and the wisdom of doing business there, it relied on al-Amri’s brother as a witness, but refused to allow Zenz’s family members to testify.

For what reason would the court refuse to hear testimony from Mr. Zenz’s family after taking such unprecedented measures to weaken their case? Because they are non-Muslims.

Sharia courts have strict rules about evidence offered by non-Muslims and the relative weight given to Muslim versus non-Muslim testimony. Because this Sharia court bars Christians from inheriting from Muslims, the Zenz family is at a double disadvantage. Their testimony will not be given equal weight, and, if they fail to disprove Franz Zenz’s “conversion” to Islam, they will get nothing. For this reason, one U.A.E. lawyer actually urged the Zenz family to convert to Islam in order to get a fair hearing.

Sadly but unsurprisingly, the appeals court awarded Mr. Zenz’s entire estate to the forger.

His family’s case is now before the U.A.E.’s supreme court, the Court of Cassation. The court’s decision will speak volumes about the discrimination that religious minorities face daily in the Gulf States, and about the religious double-standards the U.A.E.’s legal system enforces to ensure that money Christians earn in Dubai stays in Dubai.

One does not need to be a Christian to see that depriving a man’s daughters and his wife of 41 years their rightful inheritance because they are not Muslims is not just under any standard. Pope Francis must demand true justice for the Zenz family in his upcoming trip to Dubai.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial publication.

Russell D. Moore is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination with 15.2 million members and 46,000 churches.

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