Abdallah Salam and Marie Joe Abi Nassif met at Columbia Law School in New York five years ago. Today, they are both lawyers in New York.
Both come from Lebanon’s upper-middle class — his is a family of diplomats and politicians and she is the daughter of an army general. So when they decided to get married in Beirut on June 15, 2019, their wedding was a high-profile event, with friends and family gathered at Sursock Palace in the posh district of Achrafieh in the Lebanese capital.
In an act of rebellion, the young couple chose to exchange civil vows, with Joseph Beshara, the head of the Order of Lebanese Notary Publics, officiating their union — unorthodox in a country where weddings are the monopoly of religious institutions.
“Our marriage is a message,” Salam, 33, told Al-Monitor.
In Lebanon where a population of an estimated four million is divided between 18 religious communities, a citizen’s life from the cradle to the grave is supervised by the religion he or she inherits from their father. Birth, marriage, heritage, divorce and child custody are the prerogatives of churches and mosques.
When partners aren’t from the same religion — in this case, Marie Joe Abu Nassif is a Christian Maronite and Abdallah Salam is a Sunni Muslim — there are usually two options available: conversion or civil marriage abroad.
Lebanese travel agencies offer 24-hour wedding packages to Cyprus for a few hundred dollars with flights, hotel and meals included. The Lebanese state then registers the civil union contracted abroad and applies Cypriot law.
However, for years activists have been saying that it is possible to get civil marriage in Lebanon.
For it to work, the pair can start by removing their religious affiliations from the state records. Then, they rely on the constitution — which recognizes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its Article 16 on freedom of marriage — and on a 1936 decree that says people who do not belong to any sect are entitled to a civil union. But when it comes to registering the marriage, things get more complicated — the public administrators who rubber stamp other marriages refer civil marriages to the Ministry of Interior.
Back in 2013, Sunni-Shiite couple Kholoud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwish were the first to launch a legal battle for a civil marriage at home. Abdallah Salam was part of the legal team assisting them that brought to case before the top advisory body of the Lebanese Ministry of Justice. The body found Sukkarieh and Darwish's marriage legal and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, finding no legal reason to reject it, ended up signing off on the registry.
After their wedding, they became parents to Lebanon’s first baby born without a religion. Their story went viral around the world but it rapidly became a nightmare when religious leaders — both Muslim and Christian — pointed accusing fingers at them.
Lebanon’s mufti, the country’s supreme Sunni Muslim authority, publicly called civil marriage a “germ.”
“He who approves of civil marriage is an apostate and a traitor to the Muslim religion. … He will neither be washed nor put in a shroud and will not receive prayers at his death. He will not have a Muslim tomb,” he said. Christian religious leaders also expressed disapproval.
Unlike Salam and Abi Nassif, Sukkarieh and Darwish both lived in Lebanon at the time.
“When the mufti said that I got very scared. By calling us apostates, he was implicitly allowing anyone to come and kill us,” Sukkarieh told Al-Monitor on a phone call from Sweden, where they now reside.
She said she received a lot threats on social media and was scared for her baby. “There is one I can’t forget: A stranger told me he would turn my son into a bloody pulp.”
The change Sukkarieh and Darwish were hoping to inspire wasn’t happening. Minister of Interior Marwan Charbel, who had registered 13 civil unions in Lebanon, was replaced and his successor Nohad Machnouk rejected further applications.
Media attention dropped. Social mobilization, protests and sit-ins gradually stopped. The couple had its back against the wall. Sukkarieh and Darwish gave in to the hopelessness and fear. In January 2016, they moved to Sweden and asked for asylum. Two years later their demand was rejected. They are appealing and will receive a final decision in October.
“I had a job, a family, a home — I sacrificed everything for a better Lebanon and nothing changed. I got nothing in return,” said Sukkarieh.
Today, Salam and Abi Nassif want to believe their story can make a difference. The future of their cause is now in the hands of Interior Minister Raya el-Hassan, who will decide whether to register their union.
Appointed last February, el-Hassan is the first female interior minister in the Arab world. At the beginning of her term, she raised a lot of hopes by declaring herself in favor of civil marriage. But her statement prompted violent reactions from religious authorities and she never mentioned the topic again.
“We have no comments,” her press attachée told Al-Monitor.
“She has to apply the law,” Abdallah said simply, adding that if Lebanon doesn’t register their civil union, Marie Joe and Abdallah will press charges against the Ministry of Interior and then turn to the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.