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Cash-strapped Lebanese turn to online civil marriages

Najwa Sbeity and Omar Abdel Baki's civil wedding ceremony that they held online went viral, enticing more people to opt for this option despite the religious backlash and bureaucratic difficulties.
A photographer takes pictures of a newly wedded couple in a classic car, in front of the Saint Estephan Maronite Church at the fishermen's port in Batroun, Lebanon, Aug. 6, 2022.

BEIRUT — Najwa Sbeity and Omar Abdel Baki had been planning their wedding day for several years. Hailing from different sectarian backgrounds, the Druze-Shiite couple tied the knot in a virtual civil ceremony July 10.

Civil marriage is prohibited in Lebanon and is only allowed to be registered as such if carried out abroad. Religious authorities are the ones to regulate personal status affairs according to each sect's laws and regulations.

Sbeity and Abdel Baki are members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which advocates for the separation of religion and state and guarantees the right to wed under a unified personal status law.

However, their plan to marry on foreign soil was halted when Sbeity's passport expired, and the earliest appointment available to renew it was in November. The passport crisis began in April when General Security announced it was running out of available passports, shutting down its online platform to book appointments for renewal. Although the platform's suspension ended in June, General Security was still overwhelmed with online applications creating a monthslong backlog of appointments.   

"Through our research we stumbled upon the option to marry online through an American judge in the state of Utah," Sbeity told Al-Monitor. "By doing so, we saved a lot of money."

The cost of getting married in Turkey or Cyprus — the two most popular civil marriage destinations for Lebanese citizens — would have been triple of what they paid now. Plane tickets, visas, hotel reservations and the ceremony's overall costs would have been excessive in the country's current economic crisis, Sbeity said.

"It also meant a lot for us to be able to host all of our loved ones on our special day. We were lucky that our relatives and friends don't have outdated sectarian thoughts that would have challenged our choice," she added.

The couple said they received financial assistance from the Antoun Saade Cultural Foundation, which launched an initiative to help cover all the costs for couples seeking virtual civil marriages.

Their $800-$1000 budget was therefore covered by the foundation that took care of the wedding expenses.  

Civil marriage is still a taboo subject in Lebanon. After the May 15 elections, Sunni opposition members of parliament Halime Kaakour, Ibrahim Mneimne and Waddah Sadek openly expressed their support for civil marriage in a televised debate. This sparket outrage from religious groups that threatened and harassed the parliamentarians.

In May, Sunni Sheikh Hussein Hareb stated, "Civil marriage opens the door for degeneracy and same-sex marriage. A man will be able to marry his sister, aunt or niece."

"We wish people understood that an optional civil union is a legal right for all citizens. It provides equality and facilitates romantic relationships. It is a carefully drafted law, not a threat to society," Abdel Baki said.

Although this ceremony is not the first of its kind in Lebanon, it sets the stage for a legal precedent obstructed by the latest crisis of the public sector's strikes.

Already seven weeks in, the strike aims to deliver a small wage increase, better health care and improved compensation for transportation fees.

Due to unpredictable working hours at public institutions, all official procedures are facing delays.

"The marriage certificate will go through the Lebanese Embassy in the United States, then it will take about three to five months for the document to arrive to Lebanon where it will be sent to the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Interior," Samar Traboulsi Abi Nader, a lawyer and family law expert, told Al-Monitor.

She stressed that couples choosing to tie the knot virtually are treated in the same manner as those married abroad.

"Whether abroad or online the couple would have to go through the same legal procedure once the marriage certificate arrives in Lebanon. It is as if they married in the United States," Abi Nader said.

Legally speaking, a couple is married the moment the marriage certificate is issued. However, any delays in registering the civil union in Lebanon will affect the children.

"No official birth certificate will be issued and they [the children] will not be registered with the Lebanese authorities," Abi Nader said.

She said that she has observed a significant increase in the number of people opting for a civil union, even from those with similar religious backgrounds.

"It makes legal matters such as divorce a lot easier. Religious authorities are very rigid with their laws and can add unnecessary challenges that a civil judge could quickly resolve," Abi Nader added.

Khalil Rizkallah is a cloud consultant and the man behind Marrycivil.com, an online platform that helps organize virtual civil ceremonies. He and his wife were the first to give this process a try back in November 2021, and they have been assisting couples to achieve the same goal since.

"We helped organize the wedding ceremony for Abdel Baki and Sbeity, which gave us a lot of exposure because many people were surprised that this method exists and in a very uncomplicated way," Rizkallah told Al-Monitor. 

With Lebanon's dwindling economy and restrictions imposed on passport renewals, Rizkallah said that getting married in this way alleviates some of the pressure from the Lebanese and gives them space to breathe.

"People feel that despite all the challenges that the country is facing, this is the only thing that has been facilitated. It gives them more freedom and fewer worries," he said.

Draft laws legalizing civil marriage in Lebanon have been submitted to parliament since 1998. However, they were all shelved.

"Being in charge of personal status affairs brings money into the pockets of religious groups," Abi Nader said. "So I doubt the law will pass anytime soon, unfortunately. Politicians will argue that there are other issues to tend to at the moment."

Lebanese software engineer and activist Wissam Moussa, on the other hand, finds that normalizing civil marriages, virtually or otherwise, is a positive indicator.

"This is how you normalize things before they are legalized. It starts with a lot of people traveling abroad to marry, then they find out how to do it online. It has become too accessible for those against it to try and stop it," Moussa told Al-Monitor.

He said that the increasing migration to the virtual sphere that started during the coronavirus pandemic will push more people toward this type of union, further pressuring the authorities to legalize it.

"Of course, it will not be an immediate process — it will take time. But despite all the pushback, I am positive it is going to happen one day. I just feel bad for the people who will be too old to benefit from it," Moussa said.

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