Christians at Saint George’s Church outside Beirut. The number of Lebanon’s 15 Christian groups has dwindled due to various factors. Image Credit: AFP

Beirut: Created on the basis of a confessional equilibrium, no issue remained as sensitive in Lebanon as that of demographics, which dramatically changed since the last census was conducted in 1932.

If Christians enjoyed a slight majority then, emigration, the 1975-1990 Civil War, and higher birth rates among Muslim Lebanese dramatically changed the current confessional distribution among citizens. Even if no single community boasted an absolute majority in 2015, Shiite and Sunni Lebanese citizens outnumbered the remaining communities, including the country’s 15 different Christian religious groups.

Yet, with the long-term presence of Palestinian Sunni Muslim refugees and the more recent Syrian additions that was also likely to remain a permanent fixture for decades to come, Lebanese officials struggled to strengthen the country’s remaining Christian presence.

Importantly, both Shiite and Sunni leaders shared in the perception that the total number of Christians should not wither, precisely to retain Lebanon’s secular attributes that were etched in its Constitution and that distinguished this state in the region.

Towards that end, a short, 10-article draft law titled “The Reacquisition of Lebanese Citizenship to the Descendants of Lebanese Emigrants,” was formally introduced in parliament on November 11, by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) deputy Ebrahim Kanaan who stated that both the FPM and the Lebanese Forces (LF) agreed on it to grant Lebanese nationality according to specific procedures.

The proposed legislation was likely to be hotly debated and, perhaps, submitted to a vote within the context of an equally controversial law to remove discriminatory regulations that allowed Lebanese men to naturalise their foreign-born wives and children while it denied women the right to give citizenship to their foreign-born husbands and children.

That linkage was deemed necessary because an estimated half-a-million Lebanese women were affected, mostly married to Syrian men, whose offspring were not granted citizenship because the law today granted that privilege only to fathers.

Notwithstanding its most recent enthusiasm to legislate after a long hiatus, Lebanese parliamentarians were not in a hurry to vote on the “Reacquisition” draft, since everyone understood that the ultimate goal of the law was to grant citizenship to at least 8 million, and perhaps as many as 14 million, individuals who could qualify.

According to the proposed legislation’s article 1, “Every natural person who meets one of the two eligibility requirements has the right to reclaim his/her Lebanese nationality,” either if one can demonstrate an association with the 1921 census records at the Ministry of the Interior and Municipalities (that will prove the emigration to a direct paternal/ancestral predecessor, or a next of kin to the fourth degree); and if such ancestral predecessors or next of kin were naturalised as Lebanese citizens according to the law of naturalisation promulgated on January 19, 1925. In other words, most emigrants required little more than their emigration papers that listed origins, which luckily were preserved in Beirut.

Article 2 of the draft intends to verify the “actual presence of Lebanese relatives in the town, village or neighbourhood,” which an individual would claim, including the degree of kinship, along with any ownership/holding of rights to real property that may have been “devised, bequeathed, or inherited from a Lebanese citizen.”

Although bureaucratic in nature, this aspect of the proposed law was meant to encourage associations with the land, a defining feature of Lebanese nationality. Where one traced his/her roots were deemed vital that, again, added a specific feature to the proposed law.

Once approved, and according to article 8, a successful candidate for citizenship would take an oath of allegiance before an ambassador or Consul-General (if overseas), or before the court of competent jurisdiction where his/her records are present in Lebanon.

The required oath was short but meaningful: “I swear by Almighty God that I have decided to reclaim my Lebanese nationality entirely of my own free will” that was elegant and meaningful.

Inasmuch as the more controversial part of the draft law would allow grandchildren of Lebanese paternal grandfathers to apply for citizenship, some Lebanese parties hesitated to endorse it, or were likely to reject it in full, because they believed that the addition of several million citizens would create problems.

Indeed, since such expatriate Lebanese would be allowed to participate in future parliamentary elections either by travelling to Lebanon or by casting ballots at embassies and consulates, the political establishment anticipated a shift in the balance of power. Moreover, and because the total numbers of such eligible Lebanese living outside the country would, perhaps, double the total number of citizens living inside of it, future elections would dramatically change parliament’s composition.

It was, of course, impossible to know the actual numbers of potential citizens that such a law might create although it is widely known that an estimated 100,000 Lebanese immigrated to the United States alone before the Second World War. That figure alone grew to perhaps 3 million Americans who now traced their ethnic origins to Lebanon, even if several hundred thousand moved to that country after the 1975 civil war.

In the event, waves left for Europe and the Americas starting in the 1890s, essentially to escape poverty and starvation. According to several scholarly assessments, at least 1.8 million emigrated from the country after 1975, most of whom settled in their countries of adoption.

Nevertheless, several million individuals professed Lebanese descendancy spread throughout the world in 2015, with at least 7 million Brazilians making the claim, although most were once known as “Turks” on account of their Ottoman papers at the time of departure.

Large numbers migrated to West Africa, particularly to Cote d’Ivoire (home to over 100,000 Lebanese), Senegal (about 30,000), and Nigeria (at least 30,000). Others settled in Australia (350,000), Canada (600,000) and France (up to 600,000). Unlike temporary migrants on the Arabian Peninsula — where an estimated 25,000 lived in Bahrain, followed by 100,000 in Kuwait, 20,000 in Oman, 35,000 in Qatar, at least 500,000 in Saudi Arabia, and perhaps as many as 200,000 in the UAE — those who left for the New World at the beginning of the 20th century seldom returned.

What fate befell these migrants and their offspring preoccupied Lebanese officials for well over 70 years, with periodic calls to grant citizenship to those who could prove descendance, even if others saw in the preference an attempt to restore the country’s confessional balance. There was no denying that the overwhelming majority of those who left between 1890 and 1942 — with the bulk emigrating in the early 1920s — were Christians, and while it was eminently logical for Christian leaders to facilitate citizenship laws, what was left unsaid was whether the Lebanese, as a modernising society, still valued its existing confessional mechanism that distinguished it throughout the Arab World.