Many Lebanese citizens anxiously anticipate the day they can freely partake in civil marriages in their home country. But, while Abdallah Salam and Marie-Joe Abi Nassif’s wedding was presumed to mark a tipping point, it seems like the Lebanese are going to have to wait a little bit longer.
The society couple tied the knot – or so they hoped – in the garden of Beirut’s opulent Sursock Palace in mid-June, forgoing the mandatory religious ceremony and taking a jab at a civil union instead. The ceremony caused quite the buzz at the time, especially since it was the first of its kind in the country during Interior Minister Raya El Hassan’s term in office.
Today, two months since the ceremony, the interior ministry continues to stall the process of officially registering the couple’s union.
Lebanon, which lacks a unified civil law covering personal status affairs, does not allow civil marriages on Lebanese grounds and only recognizes civil marriages conducted abroad. The latest couple to challenge the status quo was Salam, a 32-year-old from a Muslim background, and Abi Nassif, a 30-year-old from a Christian background.
The lawyers had met at Columbia Law School in New York. Salam is the son of Nawaf Salam, a former Lebanese ambassador to the United Nations, while Abi Nassif is the daughter of a Lebanese General Joseph Abi Nassif.
Instead of getting married abroad, the couple exchanged vows in Lebanon in a ceremony officiated by Joseph Bechara, the president of the country’s Council of Notaries Public.
Fast forward to the present — their marriage is still unrecognized by the interior ministry, which has “maintained a deathly silence” on the matter, according to The Guardian.
Speaking to The Daily Star in July, the newlyweds explained they had gone to register their marriage contract in the country’s personal status records three days after their wedding. While the registration process should usually be completed within 24 hours after the submission of the request, the couple’s file is still left in limbo.
“We want Lebanon to be a country for all people with equality before the law, free of the archaic and confessional laws and religious tribunals that apply at the moment,” Abi Nassif, an attorney-turned-opera singer, told The Guardian in a recent interview.
“We really don’t exist as citizens – just members of groups. It feels like the state has completely subjugated its sovereignty,” she added.
She went on to criticize “some of the unbearable hypocrisy of the system” — pointing out the fact that the country bans civil marriages on local grounds, but allows couples to hold civil marriages abroad and register them in Lebanon with minimal hassle.
Meanwhile, Salam noted another aspect of the system’s “hypocrisy”: Citizens are allowed to remove their respective sects from their official documents, yet those who do are still forced to take part in religious ceremonies if they decide to get married.
“The reason why the religious establishments are against it [civil marriage] is that it breaks down their power base,” he added. “For me, it’s about identity; for them, it’s about power. They worry they are going to lose people who go for a civil marriage.”
Their union came soon after Interior Minister Raya El Hassan, the first female interior minister in Lebanon and the Arab region, expressed support for establishing civil laws governing personal status matters, including marriage.
“I personally prefer if there was a framework for civil marriage, and this is something that I will try to open room for a serious and deep discussion on,” said El Hassan, as quoted by The Daily Star. Her stance was met with criticism from the country’s religious figures, who insist civil marriage contradicts Muslim and Christian teachings. Salam and Abi Nassif hope El Hassan follows through with her words, starting with authorizing their marriage.
“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 previously said.
It goes without saying that registering their marriage is of grave importance, especially when it comes to determining the legitimacy of children they may have in the future.
Currently, many Lebanese who opt for a civil marriage travel abroad to do so. Cyprus is the most common destination, with some travel agencies even providing packages to facilitate the process for couples. Those who marry under a civil code abroad do so either because they want to refrain from being subject to religious laws or because they are from different religious backgrounds.
Citing the Ministry of Foreign and Expatriate Affairs, Beirut Today reports that 560 Lebanese civil marriages took place in Cyprus in 2014.
Back in 2013, in the first case of its kind in the country, Khouloud Succariye and Nidal Darwiche – both Muslim, but from different sects – dropped their sects from their official documents and succeeded in holding a civil marriage in Lebanon. With the blessing of then-president Michel Sleiman and then-Minister of Justice Chakib Cortbaoui, the marriage was eventually registered following a decision by the High Authority of the Department of Legislation and Consultations in the Ministry of Justice. The couple moved to Sweden soon after.
Former Minister of Interior Marwan Charbel approved several civil unions in 2013, but his successor Nouhad Machnouk did not follow suit.