Following news of the first civil marriage in Lebanon, President Michel Sleiman announced his full backing of a change in the law Sunday, two moves which have created waves of support for the phenomenon. These ripples must now grow to a tsunami, allowing a reform of the law to pass.
Sleiman’s admirable stance follows a proposal by former President Elias Hrawi in 1998 which was blocked by religious authorities. Controlling, as they do, the life of a Lebanese citizen from birth to death, they are the benefactors of all the weddings, communions or divorces that take place under their name.
If this issue is now moved from the sphere of social media to actual committee meetings in Parliament, it will no doubt face such objections again from those religious institutions which see civil marriage as a threat to their levels of control and their bank balances.
Therefore, it is essential that all those politicians and leaders who have claimed to support civil marriage at sporadic moments over the years, must now stand by their word and speak out, loudly. Indeed all such people, from civil society activists to individuals, must now join efforts to work for the implementation of this law.
There are so many hypocrisies evident in the current system, not least that civil marriages conducted abroad are recognized in Lebanon, but also in the haphazard system of divorce for those who have married in a religious ceremony, with privilege and connections often the most reliable route to ending a Christian marriage.
Civil marriage would not be compulsory, and religious weddings still allowed. At a time when talk of national unity is being discussed daily, with rival politicians each claiming his party’s electoral law proposal would be the most effective at bringing such unity about, it seems clearer now more than ever that civil marriage is the quickest route to coexistence.
As the law stands it is currently so much easier to marry someone from within one’s own sect, rather than marrying abroad or converting. The existing state of affairs has undoubtedly contributed to the feelings of isolation experienced by sects, and the division of the population along religious lines.
As cited by the couple who married in a non-religious ceremony, civil marriage should also be guaranteed by the Constitution, which promises equality between all citizens and the protection of their human rights.
Religion has an important role to play in society. But this role should no longer be intertwined with that of the state, or with people’s emotions. Fear of a complicated conversion process or an expensive foreign civil marriage should no longer be an obstacle when two Lebanese of different sects fall in love.
If passed now, the law would help create a different Lebanon for the children of today, one in which sectarianism will be a thing of the past.