BEIRUT: Bassam Jalgha, 23, has decided he doesn’t want a religious marriage. There’s only one problem: civil marriages are not performed in Lebanon.
Jalgha was one of around 200 people who marched on the Lebanese Parliament Thursday to demand politicians amend the law to allow people the option of marrying outside religious establishments.
The demonstration was organized by the Non-Violent Non-Sectarian Young Lebanese Citizens association (CHAML) to mark the day of “freedom of choice,” which the Lebanese National Campaign for Personal Status designated years ago as March 18.
Wearing wedding dresses and tuxedos, the protesters marched across Downtown Beirut to outside Parliament, ululating and chanting their demands. “It makes no sense [not to have the option of civil marriage], especially if they want us to live together and survive together as one population inside one country,” Jalgha said. “They should allow people from different religions who love each other to get married in their own country.”
The Lebanese state recognizes 18 different religious groups, which preside over personal status matters like marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance. Marriages across the sectarian divide are allowed, provided one of the partners converts to the other’s religion, and are registered in the husband’s jurisdiction of birth.
Although Lebanese cannot have a civil marriage at home, the Lebanese state will recognize civil ceremonies performed abroad, so long as the marriage is registered at the Lebanese Embassy or consulate in the country where it took place.
In nearby pluralistic countries like Israel, Jordan and Syria, civil marriages are also not an option. As a result, numerous travel agencies in the region advertise one or two-day civil marriage packages in countries like Cyprus or Turkey.
But these trips are prohibitively expensive for many of those wanting a civil union. In addition, “this forces couples to get married alone, without their friends or families,” said Diana Assaf, a volunteer with CHAML. She said it made little sense for Lebanon not to allow civil marriages when they recognized those performed abroad. “We’re just asking for the simple right [for the Lebanese people] to get married in their country.”
The protest also fell on the anniversary of a bill by former Lebanese President Elias Hrawi in 1998, which almost succeeded in introducing the option of civil marriage. The bill gained approval from Cabinet members but was vetoed by the late former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He possessed both Saudi and Lebanese passports, and was said to have heeded the rulings of Saudi clerics who said granting civil marriage rights contravened Islamic Sharia law.
A number of Lebanese politicians still back civil marriages, though. MP Ghassan Mokheiber, who works closely with civil society, was outside Parliament to lend his support to the protesters. He told The Daily Star civil marriage should be one of the “basic rights” enjoyed by the Lebanese people. “There has been a lot of talk about de-confessionalizing Lebanon,” he said. “This could be one of the tools to bringing people closer together.”
He noted that protesters were not looking to abolish religious marriages or confessional laws. “It is an optional law that would not deny faith nor good morals nor religious weddings. It is simply an alternative that now the Lebanese have to find in other countries,” he said. “It’s time that we recognize our own marriages in Lebanon.”
Although the option of civil marriage doesn’t seem like it will be granted anytime soon, the movement for greater civil freedoms is picking up momentum.
In February 2009, Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud issued a circular granting Lebanese citizens the right to remove their religion from their Civil Registry Records. Baroud said the initiative was in line with the Lebanese Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Lebanon helped author, and several other international human-rights treaties signed by Beirut.
An online petition and Facebook group demanding civil marriage are also gaining more and more supporters. In addition, CHAML will soon present a draft law to parliamentarians granting the option of civil marriages, Assaf said.
But until that option comes to pass in Lebanon, those wishing to marry outside of a religious institution will still be forced to travel abroad to do so.