Lebanon Eases Up on Strict Religious Divides

The Lebanese government began issuing new identification cards to its citizens in March for the first time since civil war began in 1975. While officials point out that the laminated cards contain a magnetic strip aimed at curbing fraud, ordinary Lebanese seem most struck by what the IDs do not contain: any mention of the bearer's religion.

Few Lebanese have forgotten that during the 1975-1990 civil war, Christian and Muslim militias kidnapped thousands of civilians at roadblocks, abetted by the paper IDs that noted the bearer's religion.

"Many would like to see an end to the religious sectarianism that permeates Lebanese society," says Muhamad Mugraby, a Beirut lawyer involved in human rights. "But religious groups continue to put up stiff resistance to any such move."

Much of Lebanon's civil war was fought over "deconfessionalizing" society, or reducing religious sectarianism. The 1989 Taef Agreement, ratified by Lebanese parliamentarians gathered in Saudi Arabia to negotiate an end to the civil war, even called on the parliament to outlaw the divides. It never did.

Clinging to old ways

Edmond Saab, executive editor of Beirut's An Nahar newspaper, says the new ID cards are a move in the right direction. "I think it's a step ahead in having a modern society where [civil law] is more important than than religious, or confessional, relations," he says.

But Mr. Mugraby, the lawyer, believes religious identity is ingrained - and that many Lebanese find security in groupings. "The poorer, the less educated, the less privileged feel they are in greater need of protection, which allegiance to the system will provide them."

Since the days of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Lebanon for more than 400 years, individuals have been considered first to be members of their religious group, each with its own courts, educational councils, and charitable institutions.

Lebanon today has some 18 religious "confessions," including Maronite, or Eastern-rite Catholic Christians, Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Druze, and Alawites.

One apparent defender of the current system is parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and the Shiite Amal movement that he heads. Mr. Berri has allowed draft laws designed to change the system to languish on his desk. His critics say this is ironic, because he was a bitter foe of sectarianism during the war.

A professor of politics at a university here, who asked not to be identified, thinks Berri is now most interested in preserving his group's numerical strength.

"Before the war, Lebanon was dominated by a clique of Maronite politicians. Now that the war is over, Shiites wield the most power," he says. Government posts are still apportioned according to a community's size.

Youth drives the change

Sectarianism, nevertheless, is less prevalent than it once was, especially among the young and more educated. At least one-third of Lebanese young people declared they would not hesitate to marry someone of a different religion, according to a recent poll.

The Rev. Michel Awit, a Maronite spokesman, seems open: "Christians would mostly accept civil marriages if everyone else did. It's the Muslims that do not."

Msgr. Mansour Hobeika, a member of the Maronite religious court, expresses the opposite view. "We will fight civil marriages with all our force, because they are against our principles," he says.

Lebanese President Elias Hrawi, a Maronite Christian whose own children have married Muslims, began a drive last November to introduce civil marriages.

As for the new ID cards, skeptical Lebanese note that, using a bar-code reader, officials can still instantly identify a person - by religion as well as by name.

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