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LEBANON: The battle to get God out of marriage in the Middle East

February 13, 2009 |  7:53 am

An informal civil marriage conducted at a bar in downtown Beirut on Thursday

They said “I do” and sealed their marriage.

But this time, the wedding ceremony was not blessed by a sheik or a priest in a church or mosque, as is usually the case in Lebanon.

It was performed in a bar.

To protest laws that do not allow for civil or secular marriages to be conducted in their country, a group of Lebanese couples decided to tie the knot in mock civil weddings Thursday evening in Gemmayze, a bustling neighborhood in downtown Beirut.

Other similar ceremonies will continue to be held this weekend.

Activists have been campaigning in vain for years to make civil marriage legal in Lebanon. Although petitions were signed across the country for the right, religious leaders in this small, multi-sectarian country steadfastly oppose the move.

Many Lebanese couples of different religious affiliations are forced to travel to Cyprus, Turkey or other countries to get married. Their civil union is then recognized by Lebanese authorities.

In neighboring multi-confessional countries, such as Syria, Iraq and Israel, cross-sectarian marriage also remain highly controversial.

In Israel, like in Lebanon, civil marriages cannot be performed in the country but are acknowledged if they are registered abroad.

In October last year, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said her centrist party, Kadima, intended to introduce a bill to legalize civil marriage in Israel. Kadima emerged victorious in Israel parliamentary elections on Feb. 10, though it will fail to be able to build a government.

In Syria, calls for the legalization of civil marriages are emerging. One group on the online social network Facebook has gathered 900 members who support civil marriage in Syria.

One of the members, who identified herself as Manal, wrote on the wall of the group, “civil marriage presents the respect of choice and the acceptance of the other. What would this bring to Syria? Harmony, less honor crimes, less immigration.”

In Iraq, as stated in Islamic legislation, Muslim women are legally prohibited from marrying a non-Muslim. Muslim men, on the other hand, are allowed to marry non-Muslim women if they are Christian or Jewish.

For many secular or non-believing Lebanese, the problem is not only limited to civil marriage but touches on an array of issues, such as inheritance and electoral candidacy that are confined to the boundaries of sectarian laws.

Civil rights groups have been lobbying for years for a law that lets people organize their affairs without following the guidelines of a religious institution.

"Adopting a civil law will in a way improve the legal status of women with respect to family law, especially the custody of children in the case of a divorce and their share of an inheritance," Nadine Farghal, a legal expert, told Babylon & Beyond.

But with political groups and religious leaders benefiting from the current sectarian system, the emergence of civil laws might not happen any time soon.

Despite this, a noteworthy bold move related to civil freedoms in Lebanon happened recently.  The interior minister, Ziad Baroud, issued a decision that gives the right to citizens to remove their religious affiliation from their official file if they so wish.

Baroud, who was a prominent civil rights advocate before becoming a Cabinet member last year, argued that this right was guaranteed by the international declaration for human rights and by the Lebanese Constitution, which stipulates the freedom of religious belief.

Although many Lebanese consider themselves non-religious, whether they like it or not sectarian affiliations continue to be inscribed on their official documents from the day they are born.

According to Farghal, this decision will lead to several legal and technical problems if it is not followed by other measures. "It will at least launch the debate in the public," she said.

An opinion piece posted recently by the Lebanese news website Now Lebanon welcomed Baroud's decision:

“It is a move that fights petty sectarianism and paves the way for the creation of a healthy society, one based on national concerns, national identity and national aspirations. … The aim is to reach a civil law that applies to all and leaves religion as a personal matter. In this sense, the announcement is a marker for civil society to expand upon. There is still much to do.”

-- Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: An informal civil marriage conducted at a bar in downtown Beirut on Thursday.

Credit: Virginie Vilar

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