Lebanon debates introducing civil marriage


By: Abdel Rahman Urabi Date of publication 4 February, 2015

Analysis: If Lebanese couples of mixed religious backgrounds decide to marry, then they have to fly to Cyprus to have their union recognised - but perhaps not for much longer.

Following mounting pressure from activists, civil marriage is set to be discussed by the Lebanese cabinet, said the country's interior minister. Activists want an end to obstacles to civil marriage contracts put in place by the ministry of interior.

Ziyad Baroud, the former minister of interior, said the justice ministry's advisory body endorsed civil marriage contracts in 2013 - but that 40 requests for civil marriages are still waiting official registration. 

The vast majority of marriages in Lebanon go through religious courts, following a law from the era of the French mandate. This makes it difficult for civil unions to be enacted or mixed sect and religous marriages to be validated.

File 3004

Cyprus is a popular destination for Lebanese couples of mixed religious backgrounds to marry [AFP]

When questioned about the law, Lebanon's Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk responded: "Cyprus isn’t far away."

The Mediterranean island is a well-known destination for Lebanese couples who want to obtain a civil marriage.

However, if couples don't belong to a religious group in Lebanon, then their marriages are legally treated as civil issues, although this has happened only rarely.

Nidal Darwish, a Shia Muslim, married his wife, Khaloud Sukkarieh, a Sunni Muslim, in the middle of 2013. They were the first Lebanese couple to register their civil marriage in the country, after months of wrangling in the courts.

Darwish and Sukkarieh's case became a massive victory for secular campaigners and many couples have followed suit. 

However, the win for the couple was short-lived and other Lebanese lovers are still awaiting a signature from the registrar to validate their marriages.

"The minister has decided to refer the issue to the cabinet, shirking his responsibilities because Lebanese law allows for civil marriages to be registered if the sect is not recorded," said Darwish.

Receiving a civil status for the marriage will also allow partners to register their child with the state without submitting a sect.

Those unable to register their marriages cannot have their children legally recognised by the authorities. 

This ultimately means that they cannot obtain official documents that are needed for work, housing and travel. In the eyes of the state, they do not exist.

Former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri refused to sign a bill ratifying civil marriages until a parliamentary majority agreed to it in 1999. He said at the time: "The general situation in the country is not conducive for the instatement of civil marriages."

Both Christian and Muslim religious authorities oppose the institution of civil marriages. 

Lebanon's former grand mufti, Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, took a clear line on the issue. "Any Muslim official that agrees to civil marriages is stepping out of the faith," he said.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri said that civil marriage was a "feature… that the Future Movement is calling for". 

Former President Michel Suleiman also called for civil marriages to be permitted, saying the law was about far more than matrimony. "Personal freedom is one of the steps towards getting rid of sectarianism and living together," he said.          

This article is an edited translation from an Arabic edition.