No Civil Marriages in Lebanon
Jeanette and Rafik found their happiness relatively late. This is especially true in Lebanon where young women try to get married before the age of twenty-five.
Forty-eight-year-old Rafik had already married once, and Jeannette, who is in her early forties, already believed that she would never get married.
One night a work colleague received a phone call from Jeanette: "Hi Ziad, we're on our way to Cyprus. We want to get married there. Please tell my family in a few hours so that they won't worry. But please only after midnight. Then I'll already be in Cyprus."
A wedding in Cyprus is the only way
A wedding in Cyprus is often the only way Lebanese mixed-religious couples can get married, especially when neither of the partners want to or can convert.
Rafik is a member of the Druze religious community, Jeanette is Catholic. As a Druze Rafik cannot marry women of other faiths. But members of other religions are not allowed to become Druze. Marrying a Christian would not be possible for Rafik. But as a convinced socialist, religion is not important for him – and fortunately neither for his family.
It is different with Jeanette's family. "When I finally told her family, all chaos broke out – someone from Jeanette's family called me every few minutes. They were totally shocked," reports the friend of the bride and groom.
The procedure goes smoothly
Rafik and Jeanette had made their decision awhile ago. Carrying the necessary papers, they visited the Cypriot embassy in Beirut to apply for a visa.
"The procedure in the embassy was easy, and the officials were very friendly and helpful," reports Jeanette. Embassy workers are used to wedding tourism and have drawn up lists with the addresses of competent registry offices as well as lists of hotels.
"Everything went very quickly," remembers Rafik. They made an appointment at the registry office in Nicosia and climbed into the airplane. Twenty minutes later they landed on the Mediterranean island. "We submitted our papers at the registry office, and the ceremony took place two hours later."
Although there are no civil marriages in Lebanon, the country recognizes civil marriages performed outside the country's borders. In Cyprus, Lebanese couples often encounter Israeli couples at the registry office. Not only in Lebanon do civil marriages not exist, but also in Israel, Jordan, and Syria.
Hariri prevents civil marriage
Efforts to push through a civil law in Lebanon go back to the early 1950s. The last attempt was initiated by the former Lebanese President Elias Hrawi. In 1997 he introduced a law reform, and a year later he discussed it in the Council of Ministers. The ministers voted for it with an overwhelming majority (21 yes votes): There were only six votes against the reform and one abstention.
Although it violated the Lebanese constitution, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri did not sign the bill, nor did he send it to parliament to be voted on. His reason: "Lebanon is not ready for it."
In response many went out onto the streets to fight for the establishment of civil law. Private companies even organized PR campaigns. The advertising firm Saachi & Saachi called out a prize for the best TV spot on civil marriage.
The last campaign took place in 2002 when human rights activists and an alliance of parliament members ignited the debate again. But to no avail: all the efforts of the last six years were in vain.
Religious communities make money on marriages
No official statistics exist, but according to data from "Information International" 57 percent of all Lebanese meanwhile favor the establishment of civil law.
But the Prime Minister and the powerful representatives of the religious communities resist a change in the status quo. Marriages and divorces are an important source of income for sheikhs and priests.
Being married by a Muslim sheikh costs only a few hundred dollars, but a church marriage can run into the thousands. A Catholic, Maronite, or Greek-Orthodox divorce costs between ten and twenty-thousand dollars.
Preserving religious diversity
Yet money is not the most important reason why the religions resist. Religious authorities are an integral part of the power structure in Lebanon. In the country where a bloody civil war raged until 1990, a fair distribution of power is essential for preserving the peace.
At least that is what the religious leaders believe, who have so far taken care to hinder the emergence of a secular state. They have also made every effort to keep civil marriage as a taboo in the heads of the people.
After her return from Cyprus, Jeanette was happily married. However, the difficulties with her family are far from over. Meanwhile she can visit her parents' house again, but when the name of Jeanette's husband is mentioned, her mother leaves the room.
It will take some time before society, politics, and the different religious communities recognize civil marriage as legitimate and allow desirable alternatives.
© Qantara.de 2004
Translation from German: Nancy Joyce