Imams in Germany to be fined for officiating at child weddings – report

© Stefanie Loo
The German Interior Ministry has proposed fining Muslim clerics who officiate at child weddings, Die Welt reports, adding that the authorities plan to amend marriage laws in the view of the massive refugee inflow.

All imams marrying people under 16 years old should face fines of up to €1,000 ($1,100), German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere proposed at a special working group meeting about child marriages, consisting of the members of the Justice and Interior Ministries as well as of representatives of some German states, Die Welt reports.

The ministry also suggested considering child weddings an administrative offense while the working group agreed that all religious wedding ceremonies involving children should be banned in Germany.

The group, which was established in early September in the view of the massive influx of refugees from Middle East and Africa, is set to develop amendments to German marriage and family regulations, but some issues relating to child marriages still remain controversial.

Many German politicians advocate a blanket ban on marriages in which one or both partners are younger than 18 years old. Current German laws generally say that people should be at least 18 years old to marry. However, 16-year-olds can be given special permission to wed with the approval of a family court if their partner is at least 18 years old.

Justice Minister Heiko Maas has long been more reserved on the issue, and insisted that a court should pass judgment on each particular case. He also insisted that, in case of refugees, not all child marriages should be automatically annulled. “There could be reasons for specific exceptions based on child welfare,” Maas told AFP on Tuesday, defending his draft plan for a law that does not envisage a blanket ban on child marriages.

He also added that all exceptions could be applicable only to cases when neither of the spouses is younger than 16 years old. The minister stressed that particular attention should be paid to cases in which a couple already have children.

Marriage is protected by German Basic Law and the ministry is "still checking" potential legislative changes, Maas said, commenting on the issue, Die Welt reported.

The justice minister’s position provoked a wave of sharp criticism from some German politicians and rights activists. “It is high time we introduced a clear ban on child marriages,” Stephan Harbarth, the head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) faction in the German parliament, told Die Welt, adding that “there should be no child marriages in Germany as well as no legal ‘grey zone’ for them.”

“We need a clear age limit of 18 years for marriage in Germany. A child’s welfare should always prevail over protection of marriage,” he added, stressing that he could not imagine any child marriage case in which it would be in the interests of a child to stay with a “30-year-old spouse.”

“Instead of going to school and getting education, a child is married and may also be a mother. She has no childhood and has just equally low chances for independent life,” Harbarth told Die Welt, adding that a child marriage deprives a child of future prospects.

Another CDU politician, Julia Kloeckner, called the justice minister’s draft bill “too cowardly, faint-hearted and therefore inacceptable.”

Meanwhile, Bavarian Justice Minister Winfred Bausback went even further and suggested declaring all refugees’ child marriages void as they enter Germany. "This is the best way to protect the wellbeing of children, and it sends out the clearest signal against child marriages, both in and outside Germany," he said, as cited by Die Welt.

However, some experts warn against the move. A blanket ban on child marriages could lead to some unpredicted negative consequences, Dominik Baer from the German Institute for Human Rights told German Tagesspiegel daily. Automatic annulment of a marriage could deprive the minor of the spouse’s income as well as of the right for the alimony payments, Baer said, adding that it could also prevent the minors from returning to their home countries.

A heated debate about child marriages in Germany has been provoked by an ongoing influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. According to a September report by the German migration office, some 1,475 minor refugees, mostly girls, have arrived in Germany already married. Most of them came from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The document says that 361 cases of child marriages involve minors under 14 years old, while in another 120 cases they were between 14 and 15 years. In June, the state of Bavaria confirmed that there were 550 brides aged under 18, and 161 under 16, living among asylum seekers that arrived in the recent migrant wave.

A government report from 2012 also revealed that more than half of all Muslim marriages in Germany involve a bride under 18.