Civil marriage confronts sectarianism in Lebanon
By Joseph A. Kechichian,
January 26, 2013
Beirut: A week after President Michel Sulaiman called on the Cabinet to resume its long-tabled debate over legalising civil marriage in Lebanon, Prime Minister Najeeb Mikati rebuffed the head of state, insisting that such a discussion was a waste of time because of more pressing concerns.
While it was correct to assume that serious issues preoccupied the challenged Lebanese government, Kholoud Succariyeh and Nidal Darwish did not break any laws, and painstakingly followed a 10-month-long process to remove their religious identities from their respective public records.
Doing so allowed them to activate a 1936 Decree, Number 60 LR, which supposedly authorised a legal civil union. By removing a key clause in their personal registers, a civil family law could thus be administered by the state, if the government saw that as an adequate venue to administer civil affairs.
Still, the lawful procedure required ratification from the Interior Minister, Marwan Sharbel, who flip-flopped on the matter. A few days after Succariyeh and Darwish went public, Sharbel first declared that he saw few objections before professing that approval to create a family docket was not as simple as he originally thought.
Ironically, the President of the Republic favoured a legalisation of the process, especially if the couple removed religious identification from their civil registration documents, before his prime minister chimed in with a convoluted response.
Notwithstanding Sulaiman’s positive remarks, which were supported by young Lebanese who flooded social networks and newspaper websites with enthusiastic comments, Mikati and most establishment politicians refrained from resubmitting the proposal for examination. Presumably, sources at the Baabda Presidential Palace confirmed Muslim, as well as Christian, clerical pressure outweighed any public endorsement.
It was worth recalling that the last time this issue was discussed publicly was during the rule of President Elias Hraoui (1989-1998), though what irritated many officials — then as now — was the actual loss of the monopoly enjoyed by religious institutions.
Of course, by declaring that civil marriage “faced opposition and conflicts in opinions, and [that the Lebanese] did not need to get into useless debates in these circumstances,” Prime Minister Mikati revealed his hand.
As it stood, the interior ministry was not about to jump the gun and, instead, referred the question to the justice ministry’s advisory panel, which studied the request in less than a day and rejected it, ostensibly because Lebanon “lacked the necessary regulations to deal with civil marriage”.
In reality, the issue required approval by the entire clerical establishment, which was impossible under the circumstances. Remarkably, why senior government officials delved into the very legality of Decree 60 LR, whether it was valid today or whether the decree negated the judicial privileges granted all Lebanese sects, was the heart of the matter even if no single elected or appointed representative acknowledged it publicly.
In fact, the 1936 law was the sole document that justified the very existence of religious courts, though it was disingenuous to accept that part of the edict while denying the section that stipulated citizens had a right not to profess a recognized confession. Furthermore, it was problematic for Beirut to champion a Constitution and a variety of international regulations, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was, ironically co-written by a Lebanese (Charles Malik), and then refuse to own up to its own proclamations.