Civil 'I Do's' May Stay a 'Don't' in Lebanon

President's proposal to legalize civil marriage enrages clerics from nation's many faiths.

Samir Kenaan fell in love with Mona Siblini three years ago when both were students at the Lebanese University school of law. He is a Greek Orthodox Christian, and she is a Sunni Muslim.

Last month, the couple flew to Cyprus for four days and got married.

"In Lebanon," Mr. Kenaan says, "you must either convert to your spouse's religion or forget about getting married." Civil marriage is not an option here, and although the issue is the subject of a heated debate, prospects for an immediate change are bleak. Civil marriages conducted abroad, however, are recognized in Lebanon.

President Elias Hrawi, himself a Maronite Christian, ignited what turned into a firestorm in March when he presented a bill to the Council of Ministers offering the option of civil marriage. Most voted in favor, and the country's Shiite Muslim speaker of parliament signaled his approval.

"The president's term ends this fall," adds Ms. Siblini, "and he no doubt wanted to make some lasting mark on society."

The 1989 Taef Peace Accord, which ended Lebanon's 15-year civil war, stipulated that sectarianism would eventually be abolished. But nothing has been done since then. Much of Lebanese society places civil matters in the hands of religious authorities and divides government posts according to each religious group's numerical strength.

Calls for 'holy war'

The civil marriage bill hit a snag, however, when Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, refused to sign it, threatening to set off a constitutional crisis.

Mr. Hariri's opposition was almost inevitable because both the most influential mufti, or interpreter of Sunni Muslim religious law, Muhammad Rachid Kabbani, and the prime minister's Saudi Arabian allies vehemently opposed the idea.

Positions hardened when Mufti Kabbani called for a jihad, or holy war, against the proposal. Recently about 3,000 people opposed to civil marriages gathered for a sit-in at the mufti's headquarters in Beirut.

Top Muslim and Christian religious leaders soon joined the fray, aiming a barrage of fiery rhetoric at the bill. Taha Sabonji, mufti of northern Lebanon, declared that civil marriage "contradicts all the teachings of Islam and destroys the foundations of Arab society."

Not to be outdone, Lebanon's Maronite Christian patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, also decried the bill, saying it was "not in line with the teachings of the church." Ironically, he pointed to the need for "solidarity with Lebanon's Muslim community" in opposing civil marriage.

The patriarch's opposition quickly caused support for the measure to erode, even among its staunchest Christian supporters. He threatened to withhold church sacraments from those who married in a civil service.

Ill-feelings are running so strong that President Hrawi, who initially suggested that his marriage proposal would bring "harmony to Lebanese society," is reported not to be on speaking terms with either the patriarch or Prime Minister Hariri.

For the first time in recent memory, the president boycotted Easter services celebrated by the patriarch. Hrawi also snubbed his prime minister by neglecting to wish Sunni Muslims a "happy Adha." Adha is the Muslim day of sacrifice that follows the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Unusual alliances

"Religious leaders who agree about absolutely nothing else have suddenly joined forces to block the civil-marriage proposal, which has a solid base of support among Lebanese," reflects journalist George Jedda, who works for Lebanon's National News Agency.

Lebanon's moderate An Nahar newspaper reported last month that about 40 percent of the people it polled were in favor of optional civil marriages. The paper added that the poll was not scientific.

"Marriage in Lebanon is a multimillion-dollar industry," laughs Mr. Jedda. "Civil marriage could easily deprive religious groups of most of their revenues."

Muslim and Christian clerics who officiate at marriage ceremonies often receive more than $1,000 in honorariums. In Islamic ceremonies, they may receive a percentage of the bride's dowry as well.

Interfaith weddings 'a sin'

Money is not the clergy's only qualm. Many who belong to both the Christian and Islamic communities - Lebanon recognizes 18 different religious groups - say that it is a sin for someone to marry outside of his or her religion. Civil marriage, they say, will encourage interfaith partnerships.

"It is difficult to throw 900 years' worth of religious tradition out the window and adopt the secular traditions of Europe and the United States with one quick stroke of the pen," reflects Ali Haraket, a journalist with the Beirut Times newspaper.

"What proponents of secular marriage tend to forget is that the Western secular tradition is the product of a long and bitter struggle," he says.

Religion on the defensive

"Another reason for the ongoing controversy," insists Ramez Malouf, who teaches journalism at the Lebanese American University, "is that religion is on the defensive in the Arab world, battling Western secular models."

An Orthodox Christian who calls himself an agnostic, Mr. Malouf was married in a civil ceremony in Cyprus. His wife, Nabila, is a Shiite Muslim.

"The problem in Lebanon," says Tima Majdalani, a Shiite Muslim woman married to a Maronite Christian, "is that people are first and foremost members of their religious community. Outside of that community, they have nothing to define themselves. They are lost."

An odd byproduct of the civil marriage controversy is the inexplicable combination of political alliances that have resulted. "It's hard to believe what's happening," quips journalist Jedda, "because now the [Shiite fundamentalist] Hezbollah has formed an electoral coalition in the June municipal elections with moderate [Sunni Muslim] Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri, long their sworn enemy."

Other strange things are happening, as well. Syrian President Hafez al Assad, a stern proponent of secularism, withdrew his blessing of the optional civil marriage proposal after initially supporting it. With 30,000 troops stationed in Lebanon, Syria is the ultimate arbiter in Lebanese politics.

At a symbolic summit of Lebanon's three top leaders in northern Syria last month, President Assad forced his guests to kiss and make up, effectively burying the civil-marriage proposal.

"Assad obviously felt there were more urgent matters to deal with right now than the divisive issue of civil marriage," says Mr. Haraket, the journalist.

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