A small group of protesters gathered outside Lebanon's interior ministry on Saturday to demand state recognition for civil marriages after recent remarks by its new chief, Raya Al Hassan, raised hopes of overcoming decades-old objections from religious groups.
Legalising civil marriage in Lebanon, which is banned as it is in several other countries in the Middle East, has been debated in parliament since the 1950s. However, religious groups have always opposed the idea, saying that it goes against religious precepts. Marriages currently come under the 15 separate personal status laws that govern the country’s major sects, each with its own religious court.
Nevertheless, Mrs Al Hassan had said in a recent interview that she was open to reopening the debate with religious authorities.
Several couples found a way around the ban in 2012, erasing their religion from their identification documents to take advantage of a 1930s Lebanese law that allows people with no religion to get civil marriages. Since Lebanon has no law recognising such marriages, the couples could choose to wed under the civil law of any other country they chose.
Dozens of other couples followed suit, but only 13 such unions were recognised by then interior minister Marwan Charbel.
Under pressure from religious groups, his successor, Nohad Machnouk, blocked the registrations of the others, leaving 37 civil unions without state recognition, according to Joseph Bsharra, a notary public who wed several of the couples.
Since Lebanon does accept civil marriages contracted abroad, some of these couples married again in Cyprus, a popular destination for this purpose among Lebanese, so that their children could be officially recognised.
"If Raya Hassan really wants to open the debate, she should start by applying the law and then we can discuss other points of civil marriage," Wadih Asmar, president of the Lebanese Centre for Human Rights, told The National as he took part in the demonstration in front of the interior ministry.
The dozen or so activists held up signs such as “civil marriage not civil war” and "as long as it's possible in Cyprus why is it not possible in Lebanon?".
Fatima Hashem and Jean Nmeir, of the 13 couples whose civil marriages were recognised, came to show their support.
“It’s socially acceptable to remove your religion from your civil registry. What’s more problematic is to get married between different religions," said Mrs Hashem, referring to the social problems this creates.
Roughly 10,000 people in Lebanon have had their religion removed from their civil registry, says former MP Ghassan Moukheiber, who has campaigned for allowing civil marriage.
The procedure only requires sending a letter to the interior ministry.
“Doing this does not mean that you are not religious," said Mr Nmeir. “Religion should be private."
Mr Asmar, the activist, said religious authorities applied pressure on the interior ministers after the first civil marriages were recognised because they feared that Lebanese would increasingly ask to erase their religious identification.
Their resistance is linked to fear of losing an important source of income, he said.
“Look at the money it brings in, baptisms, weddings, divorces. That’s over 10 million dollars a year, without talking about the power that gives them on society."