BEIRUT -- Dona-Maria Nammour was looking for a love story. The night she met Mazen Jaber for the first time, they ended up dancing for hours.
But their tale is about more than a meet-cute to happily-ever-after romance. It is also about frictions in their native Lebanon over sectarian politics and civil rights, the role of religion and rival visions for how the crisis-ridden country moves forward.
When the couple decided to get married, they wanted a civil ceremony, not a religious one — and not only because on paper she’s Catholic and he’s Druze; they also wanted to leave religious authorities out of their nuptials. “It is the best option for equality between us,” Nammour said.
So they traveled to Cyprus to tie the knot.
In Lebanon, an on-again, off-again debate over whether such civil marriages may be held inside the country, and for whom, is contentious and mired in religious and political entanglements.
The issue has flared up anew after a few recently elected lawmakers raised their hands in approval when asked on television whether they would support “optional” civil marriage. That infuriated those insisting marriages must remain under religious authorities’ purview.
Civil marriage proponents argue that the cultural battle over how to say “I do” is part of a larger fight about increasing civil and personal rights, eroding the religious power within the country’s sectarian system and, ultimately, chipping away at the sectarian divides ingrained in politics and beyond.
“Resentment of the sectarian system has increased demands for a civil one because the sectarian system has been negatively affecting our economic life and leading to covering up of corruption,” said Leila Awada, a lawyer and co-founder of KAFA, a secular, feminist organization lobbying for a personal status law that would include civil marriages for all.
Opponents decry civil marriage as an affront to faith and say it would open the door to legalizing a myriad of practices that violate religious rulings and teachings. Backlash against the new lawmakers’ stance came swiftly: One Muslim cleric called it a war on God.
The parliamentarians are part of a small group — informally dubbed the “change seekers,” in Arabic — that won election in May, building on a protest movement that challenged traditional parties. They are up against an entrenched sectarian system and a political elite blamed by many for Lebanon’s crises.
One's faith can open and close doors in Lebanon, home to multiple officially recognized religious faiths. The presidency is given to a Maronite Christian, the parliament speaker post to a Shiite and premiership to a Sunni, and parliamentary seats are divided based on religious affiliation.
With memories still fresh for many of a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, some fear that disrupting the delicate power-sharing formula could cause chaos. Others accuse political leaders of fueling such worries to maintain power and cementing sectarian loyalties by passing out jobs and favors to members of their faith communities, weakening the state in the process.
When it comes to marriage, divorce and child custody, Lebanon’s faith groups legally govern their own communities’ affairs. Supporters say this protects religious freedom and diversity.
Civil rights activists, however, accuse religious courts of discriminating against women and say that on these key family issues, Lebanese are treated differently depending on their religious affiliation.
Those seeking civil marriages generally travel abroad — Cyprus is a favorite spot.
Nader Fawz, 37, also chose a civil marriage even though he and his wife share a religious affiliation.
They opted against leaving the country for their 2020 wedding and instead challenged the status quo by marrying in Lebanon. After striking religious references from their state records, the couple married under an old decree cited to argue for a civil ceremony 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 exerting pressure to prevent it so they can maintain their interests,” Fawz said.
Based on some other couples’ experiences, they didn’t expect Lebanese authorities to fully register their marriage and issue them the customary family ID. So they didn’t bother seeking one.
“It’s not this grand revolutionary act,” Fawz said. “But it’s a document of protest in the face of the ruling system.”
Later, they got a civil marriage in Cyprus and eventually relocated there.
Joseph Bechara, the notary who officiated their marriage in Lebanon, said he has conducted dozens of similar ceremonies since 2012. Some got fully registered, but many others were blocked by “executive obstacles.”
Supporters of keeping marriage in the hands of spiritual authorities defend the current personal status system.
“We have an Islamic Shariah that we abide by, and this Shariah is not in any way an obstacle against societal unity,” said Khaldoun Oraymet, a Sunni religious judge.
With the country struggling amid an economic meltdown that has led to shortages of necessities like electricity and prompted many to leave and seek opportunity elsewhere, Oraymet and others have argued that raising the civil marriage issue now is a distraction from more important problems.
“People now need power, water, fuel and a solution for unemployment,” he said.
The Rev. Abdo Abou Kassm, director of the Catholic Center for Information, agreed, saying, “Does Lebanon’s salvation come through a civil marriage law? Shouldn’t we dig ourselves out of the hole we’re in?”
Awada, the lawyer, said it was exactly because of such crises that change was needed.
Abou Kassm said his church does not accept civil marriages as a replacement for the sacramental Catholic ceremony and would oppose an optional civil marriage law because “we shouldn’t confuse people or put them in a position that could shake their faith.”
If the state were to mandate civil marriages the church would comply with the law, he said, but still urge its followers to have Catholic weddings too.
For Nammour and Jaber, a civil marriage was a no-brainer. On paper they belong to different faith groups, and in reality, she identifies as an atheist and he doesn’t like to put a label on his beliefs. But it’s also about rights “in a patriarchal society that gives men the upper hand," Nammour said, adding they would have opted for a civil marriage regardless of faith backgrounds.
Just before the latest controversy erupted, Nammour and Jaber exchanged vows in Cyprus. A cousin of hers doubled as both guest and witness since the trip proved too costly for other family members. Nammour held Jaber’s hand, stared into his eyes and promised to share his joys and sorrows for eternity.
“Mabrouk,” the wedding officiant said, congratulating the newlyweds in Arabic as they kissed and embraced.
Now back in Beirut, Nammour believes the struggle to gain civil marriage rights will be a long one.
“Maybe not in our generation’s lifetime,” said Nammour, who is pregnant with the couple's first child together. “But it will happen.”
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