BEIRUT: Labor Minister Butros Harb has authored a draft law that would prevent Christians and Muslims from selling property to each other for a period of 15 years, in order to “safeguard national coexistence.”
In the draft legislation, Harb cited fears that the demographic balance in Lebanon would be affected by a recent, “quasi-organized” trend in land sales from members of one religion to another.
The seven-article draft, which covers both built and non-built properties, says it respects the statutes of the Foreign Property Ownership Law and the legislation governing inheritance by various sects. Harb’s draft says that while private property rights and the principle of a free economy is enshrined in the Constitution, such notions are “not absolute.”
An informed source told The Daily Star that Harb was responding to a worrying rise in land sales across sects, which has led to significant demographic changes in traditionally Christian-majority areas.
The source expected that the proposal, which will be submitted to the Cabinet for deliberation, would be attacked by various sides as a sectarian move.
However, the source added, the Maronite Church and the Maronite League have been active of late, warning about the phenomenon of land sales and making attempts to reverse recent transactions. Some of the sales have involved property that has a dubious legal basis to begin with, since it is located on church-owned land.
The source said that Harb, an “independent” member of the March 14 coalition, had not been obliged to clear the proposal with his political allies.
“The minister’s approach is one of ‘let people make their observations’ on the draft law,” the source said.
He denied that the draft contradicted the principle of a free economy, which is enshrined in the Constitution. In the draft, Harb bases his argument for restricting property sales across sects on the principle of national coexistence, which he says is under threat as land sales lead to demographic changes.
“Harb would rather treat this situation via the law, rather than the street, or the media,” the source added. “It’s also a temporary measure,” the source stressed, citing the 15-year stipulation.
Koura MP Farid Habib, contacted by The Daily Star, said he supported the draft, because something had to be done to “reassure” Lebanese Christians.
Habib, a member of the Lebanese Forces (LF) parliamentary bloc, said “there are large-scale sales of land taking place, some of which involves political and military objectives.”
“We support [the draft] because it will improve people’s morale,” he said.
Habib declined to say whether Harb coordinated beforehand with the LF, but said he expected other MPs to support the proposal, particularly since Harb had a long-standing record as a leading lawyer and lawmaker.
For his part, Beirut MP Mohammad Qabbani told The Daily Star that he had “reservations” about a law that would be considered non-democratic, and that would be seen as detrimental to inter-sectarian harmony.
However, Qabbani indicated that the legislation could gain his support.
“I have reservations, but practically speaking, I won’t object to it, because I am aware of the reality of fears related to Christian-owned land being sold and leading to certain regions experiencing demographic change,” he said.
Qabbani also stressed that the idea should be seen as a temporary measure.