Supporters say religious marriages are a thing of the past and can be a uniting force Image Credit: Supplied

Beirut: A debate over civil marriage has resurged in the Lebanese political community after the newly appointed interior minister, Raya Hassan, called attention to the issue.

There is no civil marriage in Lebanon—a country with 18 different religious demonimations—and many citizens have to travel abroad to get married to anyone outside of their religious sect.

“I personally prefer if there was a framework for civil marriage,” Hassan said last week.

“This is something that I will try to open room for serious and deep discussion.”

Because their is no civil law on personal status affairs in Lebanon, each religious sect applies marriage regulations based their own interpretations of religious scripture.

The tiny Mediterranean country has no universally agreed upon age for marriage, let alone legislation for inter-marriage, and each sect applies its own regulations, often dating to the 1800s when Lebanon was under Ottoman rule.

Prominent Muslim and Christian clerics immediately voiced their objection to legalise civil marriage,

However, there are a lot of emerging voices in favour of civil marriage, including Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri.

Supporters of Hassan’s proposal claim that traditional religious marriages are a thing of the past and often discriminatory against women.

A civil marriage gives women the right to set her conditions before marriage—like saying no to polygamy, for example—with the right to divorce, with full compensation, if it happens.

But religious marriage is a major cash-cow for religious sects who profit from processing marriages.

According to American University of Beirut Professor Jad Chaaban, religious institutions cash in $35 million annually from services relating to marriage, divorce and other fees.

“Estimates for a legal religious marriage in the country range from $3,000 for Christians and $300 for Muslims,” he told Gulf News.

Rabia Zayat, a prominent television host, says she is in favour of civil marriage.

“As long as it champions freedom of choice, and those who want to get religiously married can still do so, I am for it,” she told Gulf News.

She believes religious figures are largely against civil marriage because it will deprive them of an important revenue source.

Hariri lent his support to the cause since 2013 when he said, “I personally would not want my daughter to get a civil marriage but I cannot oppose it, in my capacity as prime minister.”

Advocates believe that civil marriage could strengthen communal ties in a country with deep sectarian divisions.

“This can create a new class of Lebanese who share common values and champion individual freedom,” prominent journalist Asa’ad Beshara, told Gulf News.

Former Interior Minister Marwan Cherbel came out in praise of his successor, saying that Hassan’s proposal was a “courageous step.”

Similar statements of support were issued by the Social Progressive Party of Druze leader Walid Junblatt, and by the Kataeb Party of ex-President Amin Gemayel.

“I support civil marriage” tweeted Junblatt, forcefully adding: “Stop using religion to sow discord between people.”

The first and fiercest reaction to the Interior Minister’s words came from Dar Al Fatwa, the highly Sunni religious authority in Lebanon, which said that its position on the matter has been well known for years, and it that it is shared by the country’s Grand Mufti, Abdul Latif Derian.

“We categorically reject and oppose civil marriage in Lebanon,” the statement said, adding that it “fully contradicts” with the laws of Islamic Sharia.

Both Mufti Derian and Dar Al Fatwa are politically allied to Hariri.

Hassan’s immediate predecessor, Nouhad Machnouk, another Hariri protégé, had famously voiced his objection to civil marriage back, saying back in 2015: “Cyprus is not too far.”

“Christianity and Islam are united on this matter,” added prominent Catholic cleric Father Abdo Abu Kassem.

“The (Catholic) church categorically opposes civil marriage.”

His views were shared by Bishop Bolous Matar, head of the Beirut Maronite Archeparchy, who, speaking at a sermon, said that civil marriage “breaks family bonds.”

Hezbollah has been largely silent on the current debate, yet one of its MPs, Ehab Hamadeh, came out with a fiery statement: “This is no joke. We will confront anybody who places himself as a jurist instead of God.”

“Our reference is the law of Sharia. We can only move within its parameters,” he added.

Meanwhile, his Sunni ally in Parliament Adnan Tarabulsi said that civil marriage was a “red line that nobody will be able to cross.”

Hezbollah’s powerful ally, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri shared a similar view, saying that the matter was not even up for negotiation.

“Nobody in Lebanon can accept it,” he said on Sunday, speaking to a visiting delegation from the Journalists Syndicate.

Shaikh Ali Bahsoun of the Higher Shiite Council also rejected the idea, equating it with “adultery.”

Marriage documents registered in such a manner will be considered null and void, he added.

Decades-long fight

The controversial topic is not new to Lebanon, having first surfaced during the presidency of Beshara El Khoury back in 1951, only to be blocked by a conservative Parliament.

It resurfaced in the early 1960s, and then again in 1975, but was once again drowned by Muslim and Christian lawmakers.

Under former president Elias Hraoui, civil marriage was unanimously approved by the cabinet of ministers in 1999, but then-Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri failed to send it to parliament for approval, fearing backlash from traditionalists and conservatives.