The Vatican last week took special note of the inferior status of women under Islamic law in its pronouncement that Catholic women should try to avoid marrying Muslims.
The church instruction, which said marriage between Catholics and non-Christians "should be discouraged," appeared in "The Love of Christ Toward Migrants," an 80-page booklet issued by the Pontifical Council for the Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.
The Catholic Church has learned from "bitter experience," the document said, that women "are the least protected member of the Muslim family." Any such marital union should receive careful consideration, it added, because "the norms of the two religions are in stark contrast" on baptizing children.
The pronouncement was aimed at unions involving men who emigrate to historically Catholic countries and marry Christian women there. The problem, the document said, comes when these couples and their children move back to the husband's home country.
"If you marry a Muslim and go to a Muslim country, you are under Muslim law," said Yvonne Haddad, professor of Islamic history and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University. "If you do not convert to Islam but end up divorcing, the children become his.
"Even if you do convert, you only keep the children until a certain age," which is 7 to 9 for boys and 15 for girls. Most women do convert, she said, because of the immense social pressure to do so.
The Koran, which calls the husband the head of the family, does not allow a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man. However, Muslim men are allowed to marry Jewish or Christian women with the proviso their children are brought up as Muslims.
Islamic groups such as the Islamic Society for North America and the Council on American-Islamic Relations said they were not concerned about a document on what they considered the doctrines of another religion.
"Interfaith marriage is not really an issue for us," said Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR spokesman. "For Muslims, the children will follow the religion of the husband."
Amira Sonbol, a professor of Islamic history, law and society at Georgetown University, scoffed at the realistic chances of children of mixed marriages being baptized Catholic, as the document insists.
"There is no Muslim man who is going to have his children baptized," she said.
"The Vatican sees this as a problem, but it's not a problem. [Intermarriage] has been happening throughout history," especially now, she added, with millions of Pakistanis, Egyptians, Palestinians and other men from Islamic countries working overseas.
"More European women are choosing to marry Muslim men because Muslim men get married today and European men do not," she said. "In the Western world, families are fading because there are too many alternatives. But women want family and Muslim men want family."
Protestant groups have warned against Muslim-Christian marriages for years.
In June 2000, the 250,000-circulation Florida-based Charisma magazine, a publication geared toward evangelical and charismatic Christians, ran "Married to Muhammad," an article about a 32-year-old American woman who said she suffered an abusive 14-year marriage at the hands of a Muslim man.
Called W.L. Cati, the woman said that, after the Arabic-language marriage ceremony, she discovered from her marriage certificate that her name had been changed to a Muslim name and she had, at least on paper, converted to Islam.
She now operates Zennah Ministries, a Holmes Beach, Fla.-based group for women married to Muslims. Her Web site, www.zennahministries.com, includes an "abuse escape plan" and phone numbers of domestic abuse hot lines.
"I want to add, in no way do I believe that all Muslims beat their wives, nor do I believe that all Christian men do not," she states on the site. "The difference is that in Islam, men are given the permission to beat their wives with no questions asked if they feel the need."