SUN 9 - 8 - 2020
Jul 5, 2019
The Daily Star
Civil marriage stalled at Interior Ministry: newlyweds
Abby Sewell| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: When Abdallah Salam and Marie-Joe Abi-Nassif exchanged wedding vows on June 15 in the garden of the Sursock Palace, their union caused a stir.
Salam, an attorney in the New York headquarters of a global law firm, is the son of Nawaf Salam, a former Lebanese ambassador to the United Nations. Abi-Nassif, also an attorney and a professional opera singer, is the daughter of a Lebanese Gen. Joseph Abi-Nassif.
But what made the couple’s wedding notable was not the profile of the newlyweds: It was the fact that the ceremony was the first civil marriage to be performed in Lebanon under newly installed Interior Minister Raya El Hassan.
When Joseph Bechara, the president of Lebanon’s Council of Notaries Public, who officiated the ceremony, proclaimed that the couple had chosen to hold a “civil marriage on the lands of the Lebanese Republic,” the crowd gathered for the wedding raised a resounding cheer.
But now, the couple told The Daily Star, registration of the marriage is stalled at the Interior Ministry.
The first woman interior minister in Lebanon and the Arab region, Hassan has voiced support for the right to a civil marriage, but received immediate pushback from religious authorities who want family matters to remain under the jurisdiction of religious courts.
“We are giving her a golden opportunity to put into action her slogan ... She is the first woman minister of interior in the Middle East, and people are really looking to see what will be her legacy in the Interior Ministry,” Abi-Nassif told The Daily Star.
Hassan did not respond to requests for comment.
While most Lebanese couples who want a nonreligious marriage head to Cyprus or other international locations and later register their marriage contracts in Lebanon, there is precedent for registering civil marriages performed in Lebanon in the case of couples like Salam and Abi-Nassif, who have taken the step of removing their sect from their official identity documents.
In November 2012, Kholoud Succariyeh and Nidal Darwish married quietly with a notary public officiating. After they attempted to register their marriage, the Interior Ministry referred the case to the Justice Ministry. In mid-February 2013, the Justice Ministry’s Higher Consultations Committee issued an opinion that supported the couple’s contention that since they did not belong to a sect, their civil marriage was valid.
In April of that year, the Interior Ministry, then headed by Marwan Charbel, completed registration of the marriage, making them the first couple to hold a civil marriage in Lebanon and have it officially recognized. In October 2013, they had a baby boy, whose birth was also registered - without a sect.
Other couples followed suit. In total 13 such marriages have been registered. But when Nouhad Machnouk replaced Charbel, registration was halted, with dozens of couples left in limbo.
Succariyeh told The Daily Star in an interview over WhatsApp that after she and her husband received a stream of death threats to themselves and their son from religious fanatics, her family fled to Sweden in 2016, where they have been trying to get asylum since. She added that she is not hopeful that civil marriage will be widely implemented in Lebanon any time soon.
“I don’t believe in Lebanon there will be any changes, because the religious people are chaining the political ones,” Succariyeh said.
While Prime Minister Saad Hariri, head of the Sunni Future Movement of which Hassan is a member, has previously stated his support for civil marriage, the party has not taken a stance on the issue. Dar al-Fatwa, the highest Sunni religious authority, has consistently opposed it.
Hassan faced a backlash from religious leaders in February of this year after stating that she would “personally prefer if there was a framework for civil marriage” in Lebanon and wanted to “make room for a serious and deep discussion” on the issue. Following those comments, Dar al-Fatwa issued a statement saying that civil marriage would “contradict the principles of Islamic law.”
Despite the complications, Salam said it was a “no brainer” for him and Abi-Nassif to hold a civil marriage in Lebanon rather than going abroad. Abi-Nassif agreed, saying it was “a matter of principle.”
In a written statement, the couple said, “Like many in Lebanon’s post-war generation, we are opposed to the monopoly of religious authorities over family law in our country ... Civil marriage is not only a matter of individual freedoms and gender equality, but would contribute to reforming Lebanon’s dysfunctional sectarian system and advance secular values in the Middle East.”
Three days after their wedding, Salam said, the couple went to the Interior Ministry to register their marriage contract. Under the law, marriage contracts are supposed to be moved from the “received” to “enforced” registry within 24 hours, Salam said, but their file has remained stalled, despite an administrative officer at the ministry having promised that she would bring it to the attention of the Director-General of Personal Status Elias Khoury.
Salam argued that it is inconsistent for the ministry to continue allowing people to remove sect from their official documents and then refuse to register civil marriages for those people, who cannot legally marry in a religious court.
“The violation or the obstruction is of a fundamental right to marriage, period, and not just to civil marriage,” he said.
He added that while implementing a civil marriage law for all Lebanese may be a long way off, the right for those without a sect to hold a civil marriage has already been established.
“At the least [the minister] should apply the law when it’s there for a group of citizens who are already entitled under the law to a civil marriage.”
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