In Lebanon, how to say “yes” sparks a lively debate

BEIRUT (AP) — Dona-Maria Nammour was looking for a romance. The night she first met Mazen Jaber, they ended up dancing for hours.

But their story is much more than a romance between cute and happily ever after. It’s also about friction in their native Lebanon over sectarian politics and civil rights, the role of religion and competing visions of how the troubled country moves forward.

When the couple decided to get married, they wanted a civil ceremony, not a religious one – and not just because on paper she’s Catholic and he’s Druze; they also wanted to exclude religious authorities from their nuptials. “It’s the best option for equality between us,” Nammour said.

So they traveled to Cyprus to get married.

In Lebanon, a recurring debate over whether such civil marriages can be performed inside the country, and for whom, is contentious and mired in religious and political entanglements.

The question erupted again after a few newly elected lawmakers raised their hands in approval when asked on TV if they would support “optional” civil marriage. This has infuriated those who insist that marriages remain the responsibility of religious authorities.

Proponents of civil marriage argue that the cultural battle over how to say “yes” is part of a larger struggle over increased civil and personal rights, the erosion of religious power within the country’s sectarian system and , ultimately, the reduction of entrenched sectarian divides in politics and beyond.

“Resentment towards the sectarian system has increased demands for a civil system because the sectarian system has negatively impacted our economic life and led to concealing corruption,” said Leila Awada, lawyer and co-founder of KAFA, a secular feminist organization. organization pushing for a personal status law that would include civil marriages for all.

Opponents denounce civil marriage as an affront to faith and say it would open the door to legalizing a myriad of practices that violate religious rules and teachings. The backlash against the new lawmakers’ position came quickly: a Muslim cleric called it a war against God.

The parliamentarians are part of a small group – informally dubbed the “seekers of change” in Arabic – that won elections in May, building on a protest movement that challenged mainstream parties. They face an ingrained sectarian system and a political elite blamed by many for the crises in Lebanon.

A person’s faith can open and close doors in Lebanon, which is home to multiple officially recognized religious denominations. The presidency is given to a Maronite Christian, the post of speaker of parliament to a Shia and the post of prime minister to a Sunni, and parliamentary seats are divided according to religious affiliation.

With memories still fresh for many of a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, some fear disruption of the delicate power-sharing formula could cause chaos. Others accuse political leaders of fueling such anxieties to maintain power and cement sectarian loyalties by handing out jobs and favors to members of their religious communities, thereby weakening the state.

When it comes to marriage, divorce, and child custody, faith groups in Lebanon legally govern the affairs of their own communities. Proponents say this protects religious freedom and diversity.

Civil rights activists, however, accuse religious courts of discriminating against women and say that on these essential family issues, Lebanese are treated differently depending on their religious affiliation.

Those looking for civil weddings usually travel abroad – Cyprus is a favorite location.

Nader Fawz, 37, also chose a civil marriage even though he and his wife share a religious affiliation.

They chose not to leave the country for their 2020 wedding and instead challenged the status quo by getting married in Lebanon. After removing religious credentials from their state records, the couple married under an ancient executive order cited to argue for an escape from the civil ceremony for those unaffiliated with the religion.

“We wanted to say that this right exists in Lebanon…but that the political authorities stop it and that the religious authorities push to prevent it so that they can maintain their interests,” Fawz said.

Based on the experiences of some other couples, they did not expect the Lebanese authorities to fully register their marriage and issue them the usual family ID card. So they didn’t bother to look for one.

“It’s not that big revolutionary act,” Fawz said. “But it is a document of protest against the system in place.”

Later, they married civilly in Cyprus and eventually moved there.

Joseph Bechara, the notary who performed their wedding in Lebanon, said he has held dozens of similar ceremonies since 2012. Some have been fully registered, but many others have been blocked by “executive hurdles”.

Proponents of maintaining marriage in the hands of spiritual authorities defend the current system of personal status.

“We have an Islamic Sharia that we abide by, and this Sharia is in no way an obstacle to the unity of society,” said Khaldoun Oraymet, a Sunni religious judge.

As the country struggles with an economic collapse that has led to shortages of basic necessities like electricity and prompted many to leave and seek opportunities elsewhere, Oraymet and others have argued that raising the issue civil marriage now is a distraction from bigger issues.

“People now need electricity, water, fuel and a solution to unemployment,” he said.

Reverend Abdo Abou Kassm, director of the Catholic Information Center, confirmed: “Does the salvation of Lebanon pass through a law on civil marriage? Shouldn’t we get out of the hole we’re in?

Awada, the lawyer, said it was exactly because of such crises that change was needed.

Abu Kassm said his church does not accept civil marriages as a substitute for the sacramental Catholic ceremony and would oppose an optional civil marriage law because “we should not confuse people or put them in a position that could shake their faith”.

If the state were to mandate civil marriages, the Church would abide by the law, he said, but would still urge its followers to conduct Catholic marriages as well.

For Nammour and Jaber, a civil marriage was a no-brainer. On paper, they belong to different faith groups, and in reality, she identifies as an atheist and he doesn’t like putting a label on her beliefs. But it’s also about rights “in a patriarchal society that gives men the upper hand,” Nammour said, adding that they would have opted for a civil marriage, regardless of their faith.

Just before the latest controversy erupted, Nammour and Jaber exchanged vows in Cyprus. One of his cousins ​​was both guest and witness as the trip proved too expensive for the other family members. Nammour held Jaber’s hand, looked him in the eye, and promised to share his joys and sorrows for eternity.

“Mabrouk,” said the wedding officiant, congratulating the newlyweds in Arabic as they hugged and kissed.

Now back in Beirut, Nammour thinks the fight for civil marriage rights will be a long one.

“Maybe not in our generation’s lifetime,” said Nammour, who is pregnant with the couple’s first child together. “But it will happen.”


Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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