BEIRUT — Over the Valentine's weekend, half a dozen couples said "I do" in Beirut — but the nuptials were anything but holy and the marriages aren't even legal.
Three pairs of aspiring brides and grooms uttered their vows at a nightclub here on Thursday amid a forest of white balloons and a flat screen TV bearing a "Just Married" sign.
Yet Lebanon's marriage laws only allow for religious marriages performed by religious officials like priests, Muslim Imams or Druze Sheikhs. There is no such thing as civil marriage in Lebanon, especially those presided over by a nightclub owner between intermittent bouts of house music.
Ralph Daou, co-owner of the nightclub and an activist who promotes civil marriage in Lebanon, decided to stage the mock weddings as a way to protest against what he says is an absurd law. Lebanese can have a civil marriage anywhere outside Lebanon, and the Lebanese government will recognize the marriage.
"You can take a plane 50 minutes and get a civil marriage in Cyprus, and come back to Lebanon and register it, and nobody tells you you're not married," he said. "It's nonsense, why not have civil marriages here?"
Religious institutions are powerful in Lebanon. At birth, each citizen in the country is legally categorized into one of Lebanon's 18 officially recognized religious sects. Religious diversity, and division, is enshrined in Lebanon's founding "national pact," an unwritten agreement made in 1943 that the country's presidency be reserved for a Christian, the prime minister's position for a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament's chair for a Shiite Muslim.
The parliament is also divided into religious categories: Christians and Muslims get 64 seats each in the 128 seat chamber. And within those two categories there are sub categories: Sunnis and Shiites get 27 seats each, Christian Maronites and Greek Orthodox get 34 and 14 seats, respectively.
And from those high offices all the way down to local government and the common Lebanese citizen, one's religious identity is also a legal identity. It's how Lebanese are classified when they vote, and when they get married.
The Lebanese government, although secular, gives recognized religious groups control over marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance. That means different laws apply to different religions. Muslim men can have four wives, Christians cannot.
Each religious authority applies its own laws when a couple is married. If Lebanese take the civil route and marry outside Lebanon, the country's laws where they are married apply to their marriage in Lebanon.
But for Lebanese who tie the knot here, the marriage law means that anyone wishing to marry across sects – a Muslim to a Christian, or a Christian to a Druze — must convert to the religion in which the ceremony will be held.
Mariam Hasbani, 27, and husband Samer Naous, 37, participated in Thursday's mock marriage despite having been married four years ago in a Christian religious wedding. Hasbani, a sociologist, says she sees the law as just one way the state forces Lebanese to adopt a religious identity, whether the citizen wants that identity or not.
"We support being Lebanese citizens in a society where we belong to one nation, which is Lebanese," she said. "We don't believe we should belong to 'sects' and accept laws that religious sects are forcing on us."
Although Lebanon's religious laws were originally intended to provide for peaceful coexistence and stability in a country of minorities, Naous says it has only led to trouble. He says civil marriage would be a first step toward doing away with the religious divisions that helped lead to Lebanon's devastating 15-year civil war.
"All our wars in Lebanon are religious wars," he said.
In 1997, then-Lebanese President Elias Hrawi proposed a civil marriage law, which was approved by the cabinet. But Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri opposed it, as did the religious establishment. A year later, Hrawi dropped the initiative, and a civil marriage law has been off
the country's political agenda since.
Daou, the nightclub owner, says his phone has been ringing "like hell," since he first publicized the idea of holding mock civil marriages to bring attention to the issue. A Facebook group he helped found, called "All for Civil Marriage in Lebanon," has garnered more than 7,000 members. Another 18,000 Facebook members support civil marriage in Lebanon as a "cause."
On Sunday, three more lucky couples were "mock married" at Daou's club at a sold out event.
"If we have more reservations, we are going to have another event next week," he said. "Many people are calling to ask if they can get married."
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