Lebanon: the right to civil marriage and the frenzied fatwa

Rather than fly to nearby Cyprus to tie the knot, Nidal Darwiche and Khouloud Sukkarieh, supported by lawyer Talal Husseini, have attempted to force through the first civil marriage carried out on Lebanese soil.

Sarah El-Richani
10 February 2013

Amidst the fears of spillover of the Syrian conflict, the tussle over yet another electoral law for the impending elections, as well as the usual security and financial woes facing Lebanon, the debate on civil marriage in Lebanon has once again taken centre stage.

Rather than fly to nearby Cyprus to tie the knot, Nidal Darwiche and Khouloud Sukkarieh, supported by lawyer Talal Husseini, have attempted to force through the first civil marriage carried out on Lebanese soil. The Lebanese government recognises civil marriages carried out abroad, however such unions remain barred in Lebanon despite several campaigns in recent decades. The couple however cited Decree 60 L.R, which dates back to 1936 and stipulates that citizens who do not belong to a religious sect in Lebanon, of which there are eighteen currently recognised, can resort to civil law. The couple made use of the 2008 memo promulgated by then-Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud which brought attention to the right of removing one’s sect from governmental records and then signing a civil marriage contract before a notary. To avoid accusations of cohabitation, the couple received a religious blessing but have not registered the union at the relevant religious court

Sadly, however, their attempt was rejected by the Ministry of Justice’s legislative consulting committee due to the lack of laws regulating civil personal status affairs including divorce and inheritance, thereby rendering their marriage symbolic at best. The notary, it has also emerged, has no mandate to oversee marriage contracts.

Still, their attempt can be credited with reigniting the debate and campaign for this vital right. While President Michel Sleiman encouragingly but inadequately voiced his support for legalising optional civil marriage on Twitter in the hope that it would reinforce coexistence, the patriarchs and the sheikhs have naturally expressed their opposition to it.

The shrillest opposition, however, came from the Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani. Rather than issue an edict addressing the ‘germs’ of corruption, a disease which he has allegedly contracted, the Mufti issued a frenzied fatwa threatening Muslim legislators and ministers with apostasy if they support “the germ of civil marriage”.  

Prime Minister Najib Mikati also argued that there are more pressing priorities than this “futile” discussion. While this may be true, his stance seems to be a pretext used to postpone this controversial debate.  After all, the generous rise his Government gave itself and MPs is also arguably not a priority in light of their already inflated salaries and benefits and their non-Protestant work-ethic.

Meanwhile, Saad Hariri, contrary to his late father Rafik Hariri who was a key obstacle to the 1998 draft law pushed-forth by then-President Elias Hrawi and accepted by the council of ministers, denounced the Mufti’s fatwa and surprisingly said he would support optional civil marriage, just not for himself and family.  

As the couple and other active civil society organisations continue the struggle for the right of civil marriage in Lebanon in the hope it may eventually deal a blow to the “germ” of sectarianism, hundreds of couples will be keeping a look-out for the competitive civil marriage packages offered by Lebanese travel agencies this season.  

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