BEIRUT, Lebanon — Ghaddi is just two months old. Lying in his mothers arms, it’s hard to believe that such a tiny person already has a lasting legacy.
He is the product of Lebanon’s first civil marriage and the first citizen in the country to be born without a legal religious sect since 1936.
In April, Ghaddi’s parents, Nidal Darwish and Kholoud Succariyeh, born Shia and Sunni respectively, defied the long-established sectarian system to become the first Lebanese couple remove all legal reference to their sects and get a civil marriage approved. Since then, 13 other couples have followed suit.
“Everything in Lebanon is related to sect. For this reason we chose to remove our sect and take our rights as Lebanese citizens,” Succariyeh said during an interview at the family home in Beirut. “We believe civil marriage is the first step towards a civil country, but it was not easy. This is so new to our closed society.”
Under Lebanon’s sectarian system, 18 religious denominations have their own authorities, political parties, civil laws and civil court system. The central government, ministries and even public service positions are distributed evenly between these groups.
Couples of mixed religions have in the past been forced to marry outside of the country, most commonly in neighboring Cyprus where civil marriage is permitted.
This had also been Darwish and Succariyeh's plan until they discovered a legal clause in the Lebanese constitution. Any Lebanese citizen that does not have a legal sect falls under a little known civil system for all civil matters including marriage.
“This article already existed in law but they didn’t notice it. We pushed them to pay attention to it,” Succariyeh said, adding that she and Darwish studied law for a year prior to pursuing a civil marriage. They negotiated and argued their case from November to April before Lebanese authorities finally caved and signed their marriage papers.
The birth of sect-less Ghaddi is shaking up the system even more.
On Thursday, Lebanese Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi announced plans for a draft law that will allow all couples, regardless of sect, the option of a civil marriage within Lebanon.
“It is a huge step,” said Joseph Bechara who has assisted 10 couples, including Darwish and Succariyeh, in their fight to obtain civil marriages. “I am very proud and happy to see the reaction of our citizens. They really got the message. This is a step towards a society that respects diversity and respects individual choice and human rights.”
But the push for civil marriage is not without its enemies.
Prime Minister Najib Miqati and Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani rejected the move, with Qabbani issuing a fatwa against approval of any such law.
Darwish and Succariyeh have dealt with death threats and warnings since they went public with their intentions to seek a civil marriage in January.
“In our village people attacked my parents home. They smashed the windows,” said Succariyeh. “Many people made abusive phone calls, cursing my parents … A Sunni mufti announced on TV we are non-believers.”
Succariyeh took much of this in stride, but the hardest blow was a threat made to little Ghaddi.
“Someone posted on my Facebook page, ‘Your son is illegitimate and you will see his blood run,’” she said, holding tight to her son. “I am afraid of these threats but I know we are giving him an amazing gift. He will never have to answer to any religious court. He is born free and he will live free.”
While it is hard to believe how anyone could find little Ghaddi a threat, the change his birth is edging Lebanon towards is significant.
The current system places all civil matters including marriage, death, divorce and inheritance under the control of religious leaders. While the laws of each group vary, marriage is largely forbidden between denominations.
By Muslim law, a Muslim man may marry a Christian woman, but a Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian. By Druze law, marriage is forbidden for both men and women with other religious sects.
Where intermarriage is permitted, children legally follow the sect of their father. However, inheritance is forbidden across sects so in the case of a mixed marriage, a wife cannot inherit anything from her husband and the child could not inherit from his or her mother.
“This system is creating division among Lebanese people,” Succariyeh said. “It is fueling conflict. It has created a nation where loyalty is to sect not to country. I do not want my nationality to be listed as a Lebanese Shia. I am Lebanese. It has nothing to do with my religious beliefs.”
For Bechara, the old system had its place but he believes it is time to move on.
“The sectarian system was a very positive step at the beginning. It respected Lebanese diversity and gave everyone their right to live under their various rules and beliefs,” Bechara said. “But it cannot stay like this. It is time to move forward or we will sink backwards into fanaticism.”
Lebanon remains heavily divided with frequent clashes between Sunni and Shia militants, increasingly fueled by the Syrian conflict next door.
Last weekend, fighting between rival Sunni/Shia neighborhoods in Tripoli broke out for the 18th time since the Syrian conflict began. Twelve were killed before the Lebanese military intervened taking control of the city.
A blast last month targeting the Iranian embassy in a Shia neighborhood of Beirut killed 25, and injured more than 100 others. Amid the threats and counter-threats that circulated on social media following the blast, an image emerged as a ray of hope amid hatred.
A young Arabic man and woman sat with their child between them. He held a sign saying “I am Shia.” She held a sign saying, “I am Sunni.” Their child a sign saying, “I am SuShi.”
The image first appeared as a Facebook post but was shared and tweeted across Lebanon before suddenly being removed. The owner's account is now deactivated.
Despite resistance, couples like Succariyeh and Darwish battle on in their belief that Lebanon will one day flourish as a secular society. Hundreds across the nation continue to rejoice in the birth of little Ghaddi.
“The beauty of it is — especially when you look at other Arab countries at this time — it’s a non-violent stand,” Bechara said. “We made a positive move forward without repressive or violent means. Here is an initiative taken by ordinary citizens that can really have an impact. It’s our own non-violent Lebanese spring.”