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Civil marriage resurfaces as hot topic in Lebanon’s politics

Newly appointed Minister of Interior Raya al-Hassan recently said she will engage a serious dialogue on civil marriage in Lebanon, which sparked backlash from religious authorities.

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s debate over the legalization of civil marriage was once again brought to the forefront after newly appointed Interior Minister Raya El Hassan vocalized her support to instate nonreligious unions, a practice strictly prohibited by religious leaders of all sects.

In a televised interview with Euronews Feb. 15, Hassan said that she would “try to make room for a serious and deep discussion” on a “framework for civil marriage.” The minister’s words quickly drew fire from religious authorities and political figures.

Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon’s Muslim Sunni authority, issued a statement Feb. 18 after Hassan’s remarks declaring its “absolute rejection” of civil marriage due to its “contradiction to Sharia.” It said that a draft law could not be approved in parliament “without taking into consideration the stance of Dar al-Fatwa and the other religious authorities in Lebanon.”

On Feb. 22, Sheikh Ali-al Khatib, vice-president of the Higher Shiite Council, reaffirmed during a sermon that the body was against the option.

Christian Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai voiced on the same day that while he was “not against civil marriage completely,” he supported the creation of a civil law that would give all Lebanese citizens the option to choose between a religious and civil marriage. Still, he strongly advised his religious constituents to marry within the church.

Despite the outcry, a myriad of prominent political figures, including former head of the largely Druze Progressive Socialist Party Walid Jumblatt and former Minister Nicolas Tueni of the largely Christian Free Patriotic Movement, publicized their support for the option of civil marriage.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri has also aligned himself in the pro-civil marriage camp. During a 2013 interview with TV channel LBCI, Hariri criticized Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani for labeling supporters of civil marriage as “infidels.”

On Feb. 23, dozens of protesters demonstrated outside the Ministry of Interior in Beirut calling on the government to recognize civil marriages performed in Lebanon and the passage of a civil law.

In Lebanon, issues related to personal status, including marriage, divorce and child custody, are under the purview of the country’s recognized religious authorities. Without a civil code in place, a marriage between different sects is not officially legal, forcing interreligious couples to marry abroad.

However, same-sect couples have also sought civil marriages outside of Lebanon, as patriarchal religious authorities award more rights to men complicating issues in case of divorce.

Several draft laws have been proposed over the past decades to introduce a legal framework for civil marriage in Lebanon’s constitution. In 1998, then-President Elias Hrawi proposed legislation to parliament amid objections by religious clerics.

In 2013, progress was made when then-Interior Minister Marwan Charbel signed off on the civil marriage certificate of a Sunni-Shiite couple. Their civil marriage was the first to be recognized in Lebanon, but unfortunately, it did not mark a precedent.

When succeeding Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk took office, he declared that he would not be signing contracts for civil marriages performed in Lebanon, thus impeding the possibility of a legal framework to be introduced into Lebanon’s constitution.

Another attempt was brought to parliament in 2016 when the Beirut Bar Association proposed a draft law to legalize civil unions in the country. However, legislators took no further action.

Despite these past obstacles, Hassan’s comments are seen as a renewed and serious commitment toward implementing the long-contested civil framework for matters related to personal status.

In Lebanon’s current 128-member parliament, a coalition of about 45 parliamentarians has already vowed their support in passing such legislation, including member of parliament Paula Yacoubian of the civil society Sabaa Party, all three members of parliament of the largely Christian Kataeb Party and the nine members of the Progressive Socialist Party.

It, however, remains unclear as to how other blocs might vote if a framework were brought to the table.

Member of parliament Fadi Alameh of the largely Shiite Amal movement told Al-Monitor that he would personally vote for a draft law to implement civil marriage. However, the stance of his 17-member Amal bloc was not as straightforward.

To pass such a framework through parliament, Alameh said, a national committee would need to be established to deal with issues of sectarianism, which civil marriage is deeply entangled in.

“In principle we would first need a national committee where we talk about national unity and move out of sectarian rhetoric. Logically, this has to be part of the package when dealing with changes in [personal status laws],” Alameh said.

Eddy Abillama, a member of parliament for the Christian majority Lebanese Forces, told Al-Monitor that the party would be making an official statement on its stance in the coming week, leaving the vote of 15 parliamentarians up in the air.

The vote of the 20-member Future Movement bloc also remains a mystery, as an official party stance has not been taken. However, with Hariri as leader of the party and Hassan a high-ranking member, there may be more pushback against the Sunni authorities.

In the past, Hezbollah’s 13-member parliamentary bloc has largely aligned with that of the Higher Shiite Council; however, members of parliament Hasan Fadlallah ann Amin Sharri both told Al-Monitor that the party would not be commenting on its official stance for the moment.

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