BEIRUT: In Lebanon, a country that officially recognizes 18 religious communities, the chances of marrying someone from a sect other than one’s own are quite high.
Yet the unavailability of civil marriage, coupled with religious authorities’ opposition to Christian-Muslim marriage, makes most such unions impossible without traveling abroad. “The situation with civil marriage is merely a facet of the larger problem of religious authorities controlling personal status and family law,” argues Tony Daoud of Lebanese NGO Chaml.
“The current system empowers each sect and in the process perpetuates the sectarian system. They [religious authorities] control your life from the day you are born until the day you die.”
Ironically enough, granting religious courts of each sect jurisdiction over personal status matters unites Lebanon’s religious authorities while simultaneously perpetuating sectarianism.
While the Lebanese state has recognized civil marriages contracted outside Lebanon since 1936, efforts to legalize civil marriage in Lebanon itself have been to no avail, despite having begun in the 1950s. In 1998, then President Elias Hrawi drafted a bill proposing optional civil marriage. The bill was approved by the Cabinet only to be shelved due to opposition from then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and many of the country’s religious authorities.
Intermittent attempts to legalize civil marriage have since fallen on deaf ears. On March 18, 2011, Chaml and a coalition of 14 NGOs and secularist organizations submitted a draft law on civil marriage to Parliament. The proposal was never debated.
Daoud is pessimistic about the prospects of civil marriage. “With the state of politics in this country, one has to be realistic,” he muses. “The religious authorities object to change because they are scared of losing control over the population.”
Loubane Tay, of the Lebanese Association for Civil Rights, agrees. “The religious authorities benefit from the current system, financially but more importantly politically,” she maintains. “They have no desire for change.”
With the exception of Muslim men being allowed to marry non-Muslim women, the current legal system obliges citizens to convert in order to marry members of other faiths.
Organizations such as Civil Marriage in Lebanon point out that the failure to implement civil marriage constitutes a breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Lebanon is a signatory, as well as Article C of the Lebanese Constitution’s Preamble.
The Article states: “Lebanon is a parliamentary democratic republic based on respect for public liberties, especially the freedom of opinion and belief, and respect for social justice and equality of rights and duties among all citizens without discrimination.”
Civil Marriage in Lebanon and like-minded groups add that refusing to enact a civil marriage law violates the freedom of belief and expression that the state extols as distinguishing features of the country.
Lebanese couples seeking a civil ceremony tend to head to Cyprus, and to a lesser extent Turkey and France. According to figures from the Cypriot Embassy in Beirut, approximately 800 Lebanese couples traveled to Cyprus in 2011 to tie the knot. Travel agencies have developed special deals to satisfy the demand.
In “civil marriage packages” offered by agencies such as Orient Express, the round trip plus marriage registration can be completed within a day for a total of 1450 euros.
Couples depart Beirut’s Rafik Hariri airport at 8:30 a.m., arrive in Larnaca half an hour later, are whisked directly to the Town Hall for a brief ceremony, followed by the Cypriot Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Lebanese Embassy for registering and legalizing the marriage. The whole process is completed by 1 p.m.
Newlyweds then enjoy a glass of champagne in the relaxing grounds of a five-star sea-view hotel before a 10:45 p.m. flight back to Beirut.
Most Lebanese couples traveling abroad for a civil marriage come from different religious backgrounds. However, Maisy Khoury of Civil Marriage in Cyprus, a travel company with over 40 years of experience, notes that there has been a noticeable increase in recent years of couples of the same religion choosing to marry civilly.
Fadi Jamaleddine, founding partner of MENA City lawyers, points out that couples with the same religious affiliation may seek a civil ceremony to overcome difficulties in obtaining a divorce from a religious court if the marriage goes awry.
In both the (Hanafi) Sunni and (Jaafari) Shiite variations of Shariah practiced in Lebanon, divorce proceedings generally favor the husband, while obtaining a Christian divorce or even annulment is difficult, time-consuming and can cost up to $20,000 in legal and church fees.
Interestingly, if a Lebanese couple married in a civil ceremony abroad should seek a divorce, they are not obliged to return to the country in which they were married. A Lebanese civil court can divorce the couple based on Cypriot law, providing that their lawyers submit an Arabic translation of the law to the court.
However, lawyers involved in such proceedings are not experts in the relevant foreign countries’ laws. Additionally, the process can lead to confusion due to the maze of laws in the country where the marriage took place.
“It is easy to talk about Cyprus, Turkey or France,” notes Jamaleddine.
“But real problems are raised if there is a civil marriage contracted in China, Korea or Japan – the legal material can be difficult to obtain, translate and comprehend,” he adds.
Additionally, while child custody and inheritance are determined according to the civil legislation of the country in which the couple married, the situation changes with the death of a parent.
In Sunni law, the mother’s right to custody ends at age 7 for boys and age 9 for girls, and in Shiite law at age 2 for boys and age 7 for girls.
In case of a husband’s death, custody passes to the deceased’s nearest male relative. While Shiite law grants male and female children equal inheritance, Sunni law grants male children double the inheritance given to their sisters.
“The civil system is better,” maintains Jamaleddine. “All are judged according to the same criteria. However, I don’t see a change coming anytime soon. The religious authorities exercise a huge amount of authority in the current system. Nobody can stop them because they profess to speak in the name of God.”