BEIRUT — Dona-Maria Nammour was looking for a love story. The night she first met Mazen Jaber, they danced for hours.
But their story is about more than a cute to happy romance. It’s also about friction in her home country of Lebanon over denominational politics and civil rights, the role of religion and rival visions for the future of the crisis-ridden country.
When the couple decided to marry, they wanted a civil ceremony, not a religious one—and not just because she’s Catholic on paper and he’s Druze; They also wanted to leave religious authorities out of their marriages. “It’s the best option for equality between us,” Nammour said.
So they traveled to Cyprus to tie the knot.
In Lebanon, a recurring debate about whether and for whom such civil marriages are allowed to take place in the country is contentious and entangled in religious and political entanglements.
The issue has flared up again after some recently elected lawmakers raised their hands in agreement when asked on TV if they would support “voluntary” civil marriages. This infuriated those who insisted that marriages remain under the purview of religious authorities.
Proponents of civil marriage argue that the cultural struggle over how to say “yes” is part of a larger struggle to strengthen civil and personal rights, to undermine religious power within the country’s sectarian system, and to ultimately to eliminate the deep-rooted sectarian divisions in politics and beyond.
“Resentment against the cultic system has fueled calls for a civil system because the cultic system has negatively impacted our economic life and led to the cover-up of corruption,” said Leila Awada, a lawyer and co-founder of the secular feminist organization KAFA, which advocates for a civil status law, which includes civil marriages for everyone.
Opponents have condemned civil marriage as an affront to the faith and say it opens the door to the legalization of a wide range of practices that violate religious norms and teachings. Backlash to the new lawmaker’s stance was swift: one Muslim cleric called it a war against God.
The parliamentarians are part of a small group — informally dubbed “change-seekers” in Arabic — who won May’s elections and are building on a protest movement that has challenged traditional parties. They face an entrenched sectarian system and a political elite that many blame for the crises in Lebanon.
Belief can open and close doors in Lebanon, home to several officially recognized religious denominations. The presidency will be given to a Maronite Christian, the post of speaker of parliament to a Shia and the post of prime minister to a Sunni, and seats in parliament will be divided according to religious affiliation.
With memories still fresh of a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, some fear disrupting the delicate power-sharing formula could wreak havoc. Others accuse political leaders of fueling such concerns about retention of power and cementing sectarian loyalties by handing out jobs and favors to members of their faith communities, thereby weakening the state.
When it comes to marriage, divorce and child custody, the faith communities in Lebanon legally govern the affairs of their own communities. Proponents say this protects religious freedom and diversity.
Civil rights activists, however, accuse religious courts of discriminating against women and say Lebanese are treated differently depending on their religious affiliation on these important family issues.
Those seeking a civil marriage usually travel abroad – Cyprus is a popular location.
Nader Fawz, 37, also opted for a civil marriage, although he and his wife belonged to a religious community.
They chose not to leave the country for their 2020 wedding and instead challenged the status quo by getting married in Lebanon. After erasing religious references from their state records, the couple married under an ancient decree cited to argue for a civil ceremonial loophole for religiously unaffiliated people.
“We wanted to say that this right exists in Lebanon … but that the political authorities are stopping it and that the religious authorities are putting pressure to prevent it so that they can protect their interests,” Fawz said.
Based on the experiences of some other couples, they did not expect that the Lebanese authorities would fully register their marriage and issue them the usual family ID cards. So they didn’t bother to look for one.
“It’s not this big revolutionary act,” Fawz said. “But it is a protest document against the ruling system.”
They later got married in Cyprus and eventually moved there.
Joseph Bechara, the notary who performed their marriage ceremony in Lebanon, said he has performed dozens of similar ceremonies since 2012. Some have been fully registered, but many others have been blocked by “executive obstacles”.
Proponents of keeping marriage in the hands of spiritual authorities defend the current system of personal status.
“We have Islamic sharia to which we adhere, and this sharia is in no way an obstacle to social unity,” said Khaldoun Oraymet, a Sunni religious judge.
As the country grapples with an economic meltdown that has led to shortages of essential necessities such as electricity and prompted many to leave the country and seek opportunities elsewhere, Oraymet and others have argued that the issue of civil marriage is now an issue distraction from more important issues.
“People now need electricity, water, fuel and a solution to unemployment,” he said.
Rev. Abdo Abou Kassm, director of the Catholic Information Center, agreed, saying: “Will a civil marriage law come to Lebanon’s salvation? Shouldn’t we dig ourselves out of the hole we’re in?”
Awada, the lawyer, said changes were needed precisely because of such crises.
Abou Kassm said his church does not accept civil marriages as a substitute for sacramental Catholic ceremony and would oppose an optional civil marriage law because “we should not confuse people or put them in a position that could shake their faith.” .
If the state mandated civil marriages, the church would abide by the law, he said, but still urge its followers to have Catholic marriages, too.
For Nammour and Jaber, a civil marriage was a piece of cake. On paper they belong to different faith groups and in reality she identifies as an atheist and he dislikes putting a label on his beliefs. But it’s also about rights “in a patriarchal society that gives men the upper hand,” Nammour said, adding that regardless of religious background, they chose to have a civil marriage.
Just before the latest controversy erupted, Nammour and Jaber tied the knot in Cyprus. A cousin of hers was both guest and witness as the trip proved too expensive for other family members. Nammour held Jaber’s hand, stared into his eyes, and promised to share his joys and sorrows for eternity.
“Mabrouk,” said the registrar, congratulating the newlyweds in Arabic as they kissed and hugged.
Now back in Beirut, Nammour believes the battle for civil marriage rights will be long.
“Maybe not in our generation’s lifetime,” said Nammour, who is pregnant with the couple’s first child together. “But it will happen.”
The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.