Beirut: Lebanon’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Jibran Bassil told a New York conference for Lebanese expatriates a few days ago that his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) would not support Lebanese women who were married to Palestinians and Syrians to pass their nationality on to their spouses and children, in order to “protect our land”.

The two exceptions, he clarified in follow-up tweets, were necessary “because of our Constitution and we cannot give citizenship to 400 thousand Palestinians”. He hammered that Lebanon would not survive otherwise, and while he affirmed that he supported a law that would allow a woman to pass on her nationality to her children, the exceptions were deemed necessary to maintain the country’s demographic equilibrium along sectarian lines.

On Sunday, the ‘My Nationality is My Dignity’ campaign slammed Bassil for blatant “discriminatory” comments, as nearly a hundred protesters gathered at Riad Al Solh Square to express their revulsion. According to Mustafa Shaar, the non-governmental organisation’s campaign coordinator, the minister crossed all civility boundaries. “We are used to the racism of Lebanese politicians,” Shaar affirmed, “but what was shocking for us was talking publicly about discrimination in international forums”.

Lebanese women married to foreigners are not allowed to pass on their citizenship to either husbands or children, though the concern became far more important in the aftermath of the civil war in Syria, which dramatically increased the number of refugees who poured across the border.

Shaar reminded Bassil that the children of women married to foreigners were born and raised in Lebanon, the only country they know, adding: “We are talking about the children of Lebanese mothers and not people who came from another planet. Playing the demography card will not work, as most Lebanese dream of emigrating at the earliest opportunity,” he concluded.

Irrespective of their affiliations, religious inclinations or ideological preferences, political parties in Lebanon have routinely cited demographic and sectarian concerns to justify restrictions, though the FPM excelled in its claims that eliminating curbs would disrupt the country’s delicate sectarian makeup.

The references to Palestinians and Syrians in particular, who are predominantly Sunni, highlighted what the FPM’s president had in mind because the nearly million Palestinians and an estimated two million Syrian refugees were bound to alter the country’s demographic and sectarian identities if they were ever naturalised.

In fact, while everyone relied on suspect data, using the 400,000 figure for the Palestinians for at least 50 years and an UNHCR estimate of 1.1 million Syrians — which excluded those who seldom bothered to register as refugees and who crossed back and forth between the two countries — the FPM and its allies feared that the number of Sunnis will grow even more than it already is. Bassil and other politicians displayed their anxieties that the international community planned to pressure the government to naturalise them.