Forced Adoption Case Against Norway Hits European Rights Court

A Muslim woman whose son was adopted against her wishes claims Norway violated her right to religious freedom by putting him in the care of a Christian family.

A summer sunset in Bergen, Norway. (Courthouse News photo / Kelsey Jukam)

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — The European Court of Human Rights heard arguments Wednesday over whether Norway violated the religious rights of a Muslim woman whose child was forcibly adopted by Christians. 

During a remote hearing before the ECHR, lawyers for Mariya Ibrahim argued the country not only violated her right to family life but also her right to religious freedom when it allowed her son to be adopted by an evangelical Christian couple against her wishes. 

“For any parent, to raise a child in accordance with their religious or belief is a direct manifestation of their right to religious belief,” lawyer Anna Lutina told the 13-judge panel. She sat next to her client during the hearing.  

Ibrahim became pregnant at 16 and was threatened by the terrorist group al-Shabaab for being unmarried. She fled to Kenya, where she gave birth to her son, identified in court records as X, under what she describes as “traumatic circumstances.” When her son was 3 months old, she left for Norway, where she had family, and applied for asylum. 

When X was 10 months old, Norwegian Child Welfare Services removed him from Ibrahim’s care for neglect and abuse and placed him into temporary foster care. Two months later, X was placed into long-term care with ethnic Norwegians who are members of the evangelical Mission Covenant Church. Ibrahim opposed this move, requesting the court place the baby with her family, or at least another Somalian or Muslim family. The court denied her request. 

“The child welfare service considered not only the applicant’s relative as a candidate, but also two other Muslim foster homes,” Norway’s lawyer Marius Emberland argued Wednesday, “but for fully legitimate reasons, decided against all of them.”

This isn’t Ibrahim’s first time in the ECHR. She already won a case over the forced adoption in 2019 in the Strasbourg-based court, which was created by the 1953 European Convention of Human Rights and hears cases involving the political and civil rights of the inhabitants of its 47-member states. 

However, that decision related to Article 8 of the convention, which covers the right to respect for private and family life, rather than under Article 9, which guarantees the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. 

“In the course of the case culminating in X’s adoption, insufficient weight was attached to the aim that the applicant and X enjoy family life,” the court wrote at the time, criticizing Norway for giving too much leeway to the foster parents.

The child welfare service ultimately sought the termination of Ibrahim’s parental rights and requested an order barring her from having contact with her son, with the goal of adoption by his foster parents. 

“The fact is that the applicant did not show any improvement in her caring skills towards the child,” Emberland argued for the Norwegian government Wednesday.  

He listed a number of benefits Ibrahim had received, including health care, accommodation, and counseling, while her son was in foster care, arguing the state was trying to ensure that she would eventually be able to take care of her son. 

Ibrahim eventually gave up on being reunited with her son, acknowledging it would harm him if he was removed from the foster parents he’d been living with for more than four years. However, she wanted the right to have regular contact with him, in part to ensure that he would be able to preserve his own language and culture. That request was denied. Once the adoption was formalized, X was baptized and given a Christian name. 

“Norway steals children when they do it the way they have done it to me. It’s been so painful. I was only 16 years old and completely alone when I came to Norway. They should help mothers and fathers who are struggling, instead of taking the children,” Ibrahim told the Norwegian state broadcaster TV2 in a 2019 interview. 

Norway has faced a disproportionately high number of child welfare cases in the ECHR. Critics say the Norwegian Child Welfare Services agency is too quick to remove the children of immigrants. In the 2011 removal of two children from their Czech parents due to allegations of sexual abuse, the parents were eventually exonerated but the state refused to return the children and has now terminated their parental rights. 

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