Campaign to promote civil marriage in Lebanon

The wedding organised by the “Civil Love” campaign is symbolic and its goal is to support the voices of a large group of young people who want to marry in their own country.
Sunday 30/09/2018
Civil ceremony of Tarek Mallak and Anastacia El Hajj in international waters off the Lebanese coast. (Interesting Times)
For a better tomorrow. Civil ceremony of Tarek Mallak and Anastacia El Hajj in international waters off the Lebanese coast.(Interesting Times)

BEIRUT - They chose to celebrate their union at the closest possible point to Lebanon, where civil marriage is not allowed. Tarek Mallak and Anastacia El Hajj exchanged vows in international waters, 22km off the Lebanese coast, as part of a local campaign, Civil Love, by Absolut Vodka Lebanon.

The couple, along with family and friends and a minister from Cyprus, who performed the ceremony, embarked from Beirut on the wedding trip organised by Interesting Times, a marketing agency that designed the campaign with the help of a commercial sponsor.

“We were in international waters but you could see Lebanon from that distance,” said Wassim Bassil, managing director of Interesting Times.

The campaign’s topic was selected following research that determined sectarianism was a key issue for Lebanese youth. “Sectarianism is not only putting the country on hold but affecting them personally. It is the result of civil war, so we came up with ‘Civil Love,’ which became a kind of symbol for trying to push things forward to allow civil marriage,” Bassil said.

He said the campaign started this year with an art exhibition in Beit Beirut, a symbolic landmark on Beirut’s Green Line during the war. “We took original photographs of the civil war and had young artists re-edit them or redo them in a way to portray ‘Civil Love.’ It was a prelude to the real act in the campaign, which is the civil marriage,” he said.

While Lebanon has a long history of sectarian divisions and civil strife, Bassil noted that “Civil Love” was a campaign that suggests the best way to heal division in Lebanon is for young people of different faiths and backgrounds to fall in love with one another.

Lebanon does not have a single personal status code. Marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance are administered by the country’s 18 religious and sectarian courts and as many sets of personal status laws. Unless one partner converts to the other’s religion, couples from different religions who wish to wed in a civil ceremony have just one option — get married abroad and register their marriage with the groom’s respective religious authority when they return to Lebanon.

There is a law permitting civil marriage in Lebanon that dates to 1936, when the country was under French mandate, said notary Joseph Bechara.

“There is a possibility to have a civil marriage in Lebanon by those who are not affiliated with a sect. They need to remove their sect from their official records and, by doing so, they relinquish their administrative adherence to the personal status rules of the religion to which they belong,” Bechara said.

“Their marriage contract is registered in the state’s civil register because otherwise, the state would be denying its citizens a constitutional right… So legally people can have a civil marriage in Lebanon.”

In 2013, a couple used that loophole in the law to conclude Lebanon’s first civil marriage contract, which the Interior Ministry eventually legalised.

“Notaries have the power to conclude the civil marriage contract since it does not violate the law or public order,” Bechara said, “I, myself, have concluded tens of civil marriages.”

The legislation, however, does not have a regulatory framework, prompting the interior minister in 2015 to issue a statement saying the government will no longer recognise such marriages.

Two years ago, the Beirut Bar Association proposed legislation for optional civil marriage in Lebanon. Bechara said many draft laws have been submitted to parliament over the decades but none was endorsed. “They are rotting in the drawers of parliament and the council of ministers. Obviously, they don’t want to give the Lebanese people the freedom to choose but want to keep them hostage of a sect or religion,” he said.

“I don’t think there is opposition to civil marriage,” Bassil said, “but, somehow, no one is activating it or wants to activate it. There is no logic and there is no reason why they don’t do it here since couples can get married abroad and register their contract in Lebanon.”

He said the wedding organised by the “Civil Love” campaign is symbolic and its goal is to support the voices of a large group of young people who want to marry in their own country.

“We are just raising awareness about this topic again and telling people that this is something that will create a better tomorrow… ‘Civil Love’ is beyond civil marriage. It is love between the people. It is about unity,” Bassil added.

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