BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai denounced Friday lawyers helping Catholic couples divorce by converting to other sects, but some members of the clergy and Catholics say the church needs to offer alternatives.
“Every lawyer who helps a married couple to convert in order to divorce them is banned from representing cases in religious courts,” Rai said, addressing a delegation of judges from religious courts visiting him at Bkirki.
“We call on religious courts and the courts of two well-known churches to stop committing this sin in return for a fistful of money,” Rai added.
Each Lebanese sect has its own personal status law. Legal procedures related to marriage, inheritance, divorce and registration are handled differently in various religious courts.
Divorce is strictly prohibited for Catholics, including Maronites. Marriages can only be annulled under a restricted set of conditions.
Some Catholics seeking a divorce convert to other Christian sects or to Islam in order to end their marriage.
Several leading Maronite officials in Lebanon have adopted this system to divorce and remarry.
Father George Massouh, the director of the center for Christian-Muslim Studies in the University of Balamand, said that Rai was referring to the Assyrian and Syriac Orthodox churches in his speech.
“Whenever there are problems between a husband and a wife, they need to file [an annulment which could take time, so what happens instead is that a gang of bishops, priests and lawyers collaborate and help them convert to another sect and get divorced in return for money,” Massouh said.
He added that the practice showed no respect to Christian sects because those converting did not do so for religious reasons.
Massouh said the religious figures involved in such arrangements justify them on the grounds that the couple would remain Christians, which is presumably preferable to their conversion to Islam.
“This practice affects ties between churches negatively,” he said.
“Patriarch Rai issued an important and necessary warning today because the church and faith are not a playground,” Massouh said, adding that cases of Christians converting to other Christian sects for divorce have increased recently.
Massouh said he supported the Catholic Church’s strict stance on the matter, but added that civil marriage would solve the problem entirely.
“I support civil marriage. Let divorce take place based on civil law,” he said, adding that after having a civil marriage, a faithful couple could have a religious marriage at the church.
Those who have had to convert to divorce were more critical of Rai’s stance. Nathalie Ayoub is a Lebanese Christian who tried to convert to another Christian sect to get divorced. She explained that in many cases, divorce was better for the family than an unhappy marriage.
“People are forced to convert to another sect in order to divorce, [the patriarch] forced us to do so,” she said.
Ayoub was raised in a Greek Orthodox household but converted to Catholicism more than 20 years ago after marrying a Maronite.
Three years ago, Ayoub and her husband were planning to convert to Syriac Orthodox to file for divorce, but her husband left the country before the process was over.
“No one knows what secret life he leads ... my children demanded a divorce. My younger daughter told me ‘It will be the happiest day of my life when you and dad divorce,’” she said.
Ayoub told her daughters she would not attend their wedding if they decided to have a Maronite marriage because the sect prohibited divorce.
She said she was told she should be able to have her marriage annulled because her husband had been outside the country for three years, but the process would cost around $25,000.
“I have to pay money to the priest and the lawyer,” she said.
Ayoub said she couldn’t afford this amount as she just left her job and was looking for a new one. She explained that she could not remarry until she was officially divorced. “I want to ask Patriarch Rai: does he prefer that I commit adultery?”