BEIRUT: Outside one of Downtown Beirut’s fashion stores Monday, Elie, 21, and Toufik, 19, were sharing a break and a discussion on civil marriage.
They are two trendy young men with very different outlooks on a tricky question the nation is struggling with. Elie sees a purely legal marriage as an innovative way around the challenges – which sometimes throw families into disarray – mixed religious couples face. Toufik, on the other hand, sees an unnecessary undermining of a country’s religious system that holds an important monopoly on validating the union of men and women.
“I’m against it, because of the religious issue,” Toufik says. “One of us has to follow the other religion [to marry], in my opinion.”
“But what if you don’t want to convert to a religion, or what if she doesn’t want to convert to a religion?” Elie counters.
“Most probably our families would hate that we convert to other religions,” Elie says, pointing out that civil marriages would avoid the divisive issue of conversion altogether.
Their discussion follows the exchanges of friends and family around the country as they try to come to terms with the controversial subject that came to the front of public discourse Sunday, after President Michel Sleiman spearheaded a recent surge of support for a civil marriage initiative
Sleiman posted a photo and message on Twitter and Facebook expressing support for nonreligious marriages, an issue that has long been unable to gain traction in Parliament. The post was met with a slew of supportive Twitter messages and suggestions that lawmakers could now finally take action on the issue.
The post spurred an outpouring of emotions and opinions on social media, with over 7,500 likes and 1,000 comments on his Facebook post alone.
Lebanon only allows religious marriages for couples of the same sect. The current system keeps marriages, divorce and inheritance proceedings centralized under the respective religious authorities. But critics say mixed religious and less religious couples are forced into an unfair choice of picking between religions. They say civil marriage, one that is recognized by just the state, would facilitate more marriages of people from different backgrounds, reducing sectarianism.
Religious leaders have long pushed back against the introduction of civil marriage, a change that would circumvent one of their main sources of power. And despite a largely positive reaction to Sleiman’s proposal online, many people are skeptical of undermining the traditional marriage system, torn between religious teachings and the possibility of reducing strife.
“I’m against this law, because I believe that religion is our reference in life, whether for Muslims or Christians,” says 31-year-old Salah Bayyan, a store owner.
“In my opinion civil marriage has its positive and negative aspects. The negative point is that religion forbids it, and the positive point is that it joins together different sects and it can consolidate national unity,” Bayyan says.
Many people agree that a secular marriage wouldn’t necessarily solve every problem, particularly in regard to Muslim-Christian marriages, which some say are not allowed.
“I don’t support this ... due to religious difficulties. Religious differences between people will occur due to this type of marriage,” 24-year-old Hussam says, adding that he would accept the law if enough people wanted it.
Yet for supporters of a change to the system, the importance of religious co-existence far outweighs the concerns.
“Most people are forced to marry religiously for many reasons, one of which is sectarianism,” says Bernadette, 45. “Civil marriage eases reaching common grounds between Muslims and Christians.”
The message of co-existence is a sentiment echoed by 31-year-old Jad, a banker: “It’s a positive thing for Lebanon to evolve in this way, especially since our society has a lot of confessions and is very sectarian.”