Lebanon reconsiders civil marriage

Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk decided to refer the legality of civil marriage to the Cabinet, thus putting into question the fate of 40 couples who chose to wed in civil ceremonies.

al-monitor A man kisses a woman as they hold up a placard during a protest demanding to legalize civil marriage in Lebanon, at Martyrs' Square in downtown Beirut, Feb. 4, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Jamal Saidi.

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sectarianism, religion, marriage, lebanon, civil law

Feb 5, 2015

Lebanon’s Minister of Interior and Municipalities Nouhad Machnouk decided to refer civil marriage contracts to the civil courts in order for them to examine their legality and decide on their registration. Because of this decision, the fate of more than 40 couples remains unresolved.

Before he referred the issue to the Cabinet, Machnouk issued a statement stressing that he supports “the principle of optional civil marriage in Lebanon. Yet, in the absence of any civil law governing this process and defining the procedures, mechanisms, the required documents and the authority to perform civil marriage, it is thus impossible for civil marriage contracts concluded before the notary public in Lebanon to be registered at present. An optional civil marriage law governing this marriage and its effects must be enacted.”

Decision no. 60 L.R. of March 13, 1936, is the cornerstone upon which pro-civil marriage parties in Lebanon are based. Machnouk also relied on this decision to take away this right. The statement read, “Decision no. 60 L.R. of March 13, 1936, on the ground of which civil marriage contracts are concluded in Lebanon, authorizes the formation of communities subject to the the common law. These communities shall be acknowledged if their religious teachings and moral principles are not inconsistent with the general security, ethics, the state constitution and the communities’ regulations. Based on Article 15, which in accordance with Article 16 of the same decision, they must submit to the government a regulation summarizing their religious and moral principles, as well as their organization, provided that it is recognized and put into force by virtue of a legislative decision, which is yet to happen.”

The judgment did not come as a surprise, as Machnouk had earlier appeared on television and paved the way for its issuance. However, the judgment’s statement that was issued yesterday [Feb. 2] caused a stir among the concerned parties and those who wish to follow suit. Many have gotten rid of sectarianism and decided to be labeled citizens and nothing more. Thus, Machnouk found himself obliged to refer the case to the Cabinet to settle it on Wednesday [Feb. 4], after he had previously stated that “the perfect solution to the issue, which has many implications at different national levels, should be a solution coming from parliament through the necessary legislation.”

After a year of living together, Rawad Ghattas, 30, and Rasha Ezzo, 22, decided to get married. They faced many obstacles over seven months in preparing and obtaining the necessary legal documents to complete the marriage, which was held before the notary public Joseph Bechara, who is one of two notary publics in Lebanon — the other being in Tripoli — who register this type of marriage.

After eight months of marriage, today Rawad has a five-month-old daughter, who is not officially registered at the Ministry of the Interior. Rawad said this is because of the “contradicting positions of a minister that proved to have been taken out of spite. He used to support civil marriage, but now he is suggesting referring the decision to parliament to look into it.”

“What will become of the marriage contracts that have been previously made? Will this issue be subject to the mood of the interior minister? If one does not wish to have a religious marriage, not before a sheikh or a priest, does she or he have to be bound by the decision of a ruler [when it comes to such a personal decision]? Thus, they are better not judging us, as the organization is the authority in this case,’’ Rawad added.

Director of the Civic Center for National Initiative, attorney Talal al-Husseini, said, “What Machnouk said is not only in direct conflict with the law, but also undermines it.”

To An-Nahar, Husseinin added, “A minister does not have the right to cancel another minister’s decision, as both ministers, [Marwan] Charbel and Machnouk are governed by the same law.”

“In his capacity as minister of interior, Charbel has sent detailed questions to the legislation and consulting body in this regard. Based on the reply he received, the marriage contracts of Nidal and Khouloud and four other couples were registered. It turned out that the Ministry of Interior has no authority to interfere in the marriage contract except for the sake of legal formalities. Machnouk has only the right to require employees to adhere to the law that has been approved by the Ministry of Justice. Only relevant parties ought to challenge the marriage contract, and the Ministry of Interior does not have the right to do anything in this context but to transfer data from contracts,” he added.

Husseini’s views find common ground with those of Nidal Darwish who, along his wife Khouloud, opened the door to civil marriage in Lebanon, which has caused an ongoing stir.

Darwish told An-Nahar, “My marriage contract and the four other contracts that followed are irrevocable, as we all now have Lebanese family extracts [identification documents].”

“By refusing to sign new contracts, Machnouk is letting the constitution go down the drain, and undermining the principle of equality of all citizens. Moreover, the minister of interior is not the competent authority to have a say in this subject. On the contrary, his ministry is required to document marriage contracts, and employees who impede such a process ought to be held accountable. This is especially true since according to the law, all contracts that are submitted to the civil registry should be documented within 24 hours. Nevertheless, there are many civil marriage contracts that have been kept on the shelf for four months,” Darwish added.

In his interview with An-Nahar, former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud expressed his surprise “at how things went back to square one concerning the registration of civil marriage contracts. Seven contracts have been registered so far, based on the Supreme Advisory Board of the Ministry of Justice.”

“How is it possible that people governed by the same civil system be treated differently, yet in a contradictory manner? Are ruling and governance not ongoing? The absence of legislation governing civil marriage, which we aspire for, does not mean that the civil marriages that have taken place in Lebanon are no longer legal, as long as they do not contradict the Lebanese public order. These contracts were registered in departments of civil affairs in Lebanon. Thus, the couples who meet the same conditions in this effect should not be asked to approach the judiciary to obtain a ruling to register their marriage, because registration is an administrative measure and not an inception of a right. Going to the judiciary is most likely a step aimed at challenging the decision to refuse the marriage registration, as such a decision is a violation of the principle of equality among citizens, which is stipulated by the constitution,” Baroud said.

“The Decision 60 L.R. of 1963, which is still valid, clearly provided for the community [mentioned] in the common law as well as other multiple sects that have been historically recognized, and are instated, as per the law, without the need for registration. Moreover, according to Article 14 of the same decision, the common law communities have the right to organize and deal with their affairs freely within the boundaries of the civil law,” Baroud said.

Meanwhile, recognizing these communities is optional in order to “appropriate real estate and necessary properties, to perform religious services and to have ‘cemeteries’ [Article 15]. Most importantly, Article 17 clearly stipulates that the personal status of Syrians or Lebanese who are affiliated with one of the denominations stated in Article 14 et seq., or not affiliated with any religious denomination, shall be subject to the Civil Code,” he added.

Baroud further said, “Thus, by striking off the community, the concerned people are no longer affiliated with any sect but continue to be subject to the Civil Code.” He also brought up Article 21 of the Decision 60 L.R., stipulating, “The registrar shall register the marriage within 24 hours of receiving it, according to the applicable laws. Should he refrain from doing so, he should be held responsible. The minister of the interior did well referring the subject to the Cabinet.”

The Civil Commission for the Freedom of Choice is waiting for the Cabinet session tomorrow [Feb. 4] and the stance of ministers on civil marriage in Lebanon, knowing that the Ministry of Interior registers civil marriage contracts that are concluded abroad. Afterwards, the commission will declare its position and its next steps during a press conference to be held next Thursday [Feb. 12].

According to Husseini, “We will win this battle as we won the two previous ones. The first was the battle for the Lebanese right not to be affiliated with any sect, as we managed to strike [religious] community from the civil registry. The second battle was the registration of five civil marriage contracts in Lebanon, and now we are facing a new challenge and we will be victorious.”

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