Chastising Lebanon’s Unrecognized Married Couples: Cyprus as a Scapegoat
On November 10, 2012, the first civil marriage between Lebanese persons on Lebanese soil was contracted. After a long debate about the right of persons not belonging to any sect to contract civil marriages in Lebanon, then-Minister of Interior Marwan Charbel finally agreed to register the marriage on the basis of the opinion of the Higher Committee for Consultations in the Ministry of Justice. Charbel also agreed to register 11 subsequent civil marriages pursuant to the same opinion. In an air of legal stability on the issue, civil marriages began occurring one after another in Lebanon.
However, with the change of government and the appointment of Nohad Machnouk as the new minister of interior, the process of registering the dozens of civil marriages halted. Machnouk quickly settled the resulting queries with a famous statement calling upon citizens seeking civil marriage to travel to Cyprus. He declared his belief that civil marriage contracts are illegal on the basis of the opinion of the Legislation and Consultation Committee (an opinion that had been rejected by the Higher Committee for Consultations, which is an appellate authority to the Legislation and Consultation Committee within the Ministry of Justice). The minister’s refusal to register these marriages has put 50 couples in an obscure legal situation. More importantly, it has shown how precarious their circumstances are, and thereby deterred everyone wishing to contract a civil marriage from doing so in Lebanon.
How might the couples whose marriages have not yet been registered now act? Will they resort to the judiciary, bearing the costs and the burden of waiting? What if the outcome is negative? Will they heed the minister of interior’s call and travel to Cyprus, or will they submit to the religious courts, now that this minister has reestablished them as the only means of concluding a marriage contract in Lebanon? Of course, these questions become more pressing for the couples as their family circumstances evolve, particularly with pregnancy and childbirth. We posed these questions, among others, to a number of the couples in the interviews presented below [their names remain anonymous to protect their identity].
Resorting to the Judiciary to End the Arbitrariness
Months after the minister’s speech, and after attempts to contact him failed, some couples decided to resort to the judiciary to cement their right [to civil marriage]. This decision stemmed from their conviction that the courts will take their side, a conviction based on the fact that many judges have previously issued very fair rulings that go against popular opinions. These couples see the courts as the only legal tool (and their last resort) for confronting the minister’s decision, which they consider illegal.
Lawyer Khaled Merheb brought one such case before the summary affairs judiciary on behalf of a couple wanting to register their marriage as soon as possible. Merheb explained to The Legal Agenda that he concentrated on the presence of an imminent danger stemming from the wife’s pregnancy. He rested the claim, which is still pending, on “the right –or rather the duty– of the summary affairs judge to protect rights from any action that could cause potentially irreparable harm”. “Not registering the marriage contract concluded between the client and his wife legally and on the basis of the laws and decrees”, he stated, “could cause grave harm to family rights, particularly upon the birth of their child, who will not be able to be registered”.
The couple involved in the second case we observed requested that we refrain from publishing the case facts pending the court ruling.
Brave Couples Compelled to Pursue Alternative Means of Marriage
The third couple we contacted revealed a different social situation. The husband explained that he emigrated to a Gulf country in 2013 because of material hardship, and that he got married civilly in Lebanon after Nidal Darwish [the first man in Lebanon to enter such a marriage] assured him that the state had finally recognized the right to do so. The husband told The Legal Agenda that he believes in two axioms: “Civil marriage is the principle and religious marriage is an exception, and a person’s sect shouldn’t be stated on his identity papers in the first place.” He added that they could not afford to travel to marry in Cyprus. Unlike other couples, they found that they desperately needed to legalize their status because the wife would soon travel to join her husband in the aforementioned Gulf country; in accordance with Sharia provisions, that country criminalizes cohabitation outside of wedlock, and it only recognizes foreigners’ marriages if they are certified by the foreigners’ home country.
Facing this pressure and feeling that “the issue is bigger than the reassurances [they] were receiving [from civil marriage advocates]”, the couple decided to contract a religious marriage. In order to be married by the Sunni court in Tripoli, the husband had to obtain a “statement verifying confession” from Dar al-Fatwa [Lebanon’s highest state Sunni authority], and his wife had to obtain a “baptism certificate proving that she is among the ‘People of the Book’”. This measure was imposed upon them because they had previously deleted their religions [from their state records], which Lebanese persons must do in order to contract a civil marriage in Lebanon. To their surprise, the Sharia court refused to contract the marriage. “We cannot marry you before your wife and you restore the reference to your confession on the civil status records”, was the response that the couple received. In this regard, the court appeared to be acting as an additional deterrent against deleting the reference to religious affiliation by suspending the personal rights, including the right to marriage, of persons who do so.
“Our civil marriage is ineffectual because of administrative obstruction, and we cannot conclude a Sharia marriage before restoring the reference [to our religions], because of the whims of the Sharia court judge. Restoring the reference requires a civil court [action] that could go on for months.” The husband simply explained, “My wife and I travelled to the place where I live a year ago. We lived a secretive lifestyle. We didn’t know when and how we might run into some trouble. We never knew... We continued living like this for about six months, at which point we went to Cyprus and got married. After a few weeks, we had in our possession a family registration extract authenticated by the Gulf [country’s] embassy in Beirut”.
The fourth couple that we interviewed rejects religious marriage and the religious institution as a whole. Hence, the couple wanted a civil marriage. The newfound availability of civil marriage in Lebanon encouraged them to take this step “to support civil society”. However, things did not go as expected and the marriage was never registered. Before the wedding, the couple had begun preparing for a long trip, reserving and paying for tickets. “We weren’t going to miss everything we had prepared for, so we decided to go to Cyprus to contract a new marriage.” On this matter, the husband explained that obtaining a visa in many of the countries that they would visit is easier for married persons. The couple did not consider resorting to the judiciary before going to Cyprus because there was not enough time before they were due to travel. As the wife is an Italian national, the husband was able to comment on the difference in treatment they experienced when registering their Cyprus marriage: “In the Italian embassy, we got the certification within minutes and paid no fees. The Lebanese embassy, on the other hand, asked us for many documents and charged us about €40 for certification.”
The impact that the lack of registration has on each couple seems to vary in accordance with their individual need to prove their marriage. However, they all share one concern: childbearing. They feel that they can continue the fight [for civil marriage] as long as they are in Lebanon and not expecting a child. The fifth couple, on their part, has not yet travelled to Cyprus and has not tried to contract a religious marriage. They already know that the church will not agree to marry them until they restore the reference to their sect on their identity papers. Their decision thus far has been to hold off bearing children. However, in the case of a pregnancy they will resort to Cyprus. “We don’t want to have a child and be unable to get him an ID, or any identity papers or get him into a school”, the wife explained. She added that their civil marriage was intended to “help our country become what we envision it”. The couple has not resorted to the courts even though they know of pending cases involving similar couples. They fixate their hopes on the outcomes of these cases, having heard from the committee comprised of all of the couples [unable to register their marriages] and of lawyers, that these outcomes will determine how things go in future. The couple said that they consulted friends who are lawyers and found that some know nothing about civil marriage in Lebanon, and were surprised by the notion as a whole; others either told them that it is a lost cause or advised them to get married outside of Lebanon. This raises a difficult question about the role of lawyers in social issues, and the extent of their knowledge about these issues in Lebanon, as well as the extent to which they feel the need to work to advance these issues instead of surrendering to the status quo.