Old enemies from Lebanon's civil war unite to maintain the social divide

The Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Nasralla Sfeir, announced that civil marriage was against the teachings of the church

Robert Fisk
Monday 30 March 1998 23:02

SINCE their 16-year civil war ended in 1990, the Lebanese have piously acknowledged that their country should be deconfessionalised, and that religious barriers can only be broken down by a non-sectarian civil society. That, however, was only for public consumption - as President Elias Hrawi has found to his cost.

As a first, tentative step away from the divisions that cost 150,000 Lebanese lives, he has mildly told his cabinet he intends to introduce civil marriage to Lebanon. After all, couples of mixed faith were being forced to change their religion or fly to Cyprus to marry. Surely a civil wedding would solve the problem.

You would have thought Mr Hrawi was suggesting mass suicide. Muslim sheikhs and Maronite Christian bishops who have been spouting off for years on the need to deconfessionalise Lebanon, roared with anger at this diminution of their power. Outside the office of the Sunni Grand Mufti in Beirut, thousands gathered to scream "Allahu akbar" - God is greater - in protest at Mr Hrawi's proposal.

The Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, announced in a Sunday sermon that civil marriage was against the teachings of the church. Mr Hrawi - the president must always be a Christian Maronite under Lebanon's sectarian system - remains unmoved.

He has, after all, uncovered the hypocrisy that lies at the heart of Lebanon's body politic: the desperate need to maintain a sectarian society, so that no religious community feels left out of the system, while maintaining the facade that the country's ultimate aim is to deconfessionalise.

Young people generally welcomed the idea, especially the tens of thousands who were exiled in Europe during the 1975-90 war and who now resent the demands of parents that they marry into their own community (or change their religion to that of their spouse).

The truth, however, is more ambiguous. For what really worries the religious leaders is not so much marriage but divorce, death and inheritance. Under Muslim religious law, divorce of a woman is decided according to previously agreed dowries; inheritance is divided among children and relatives - the details differ between Christians and Muslims. Civil marriage would effectively do away with these restrictions and take away the power of the religious courts. Inevitably, it would give greater equality to women.

Tracts are now circulating in Lebanese cities. "Today, it's civil marriage - tomorrow it will be the end of religious courts," they say. The Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri - the premier has to be a Sunni Muslim - has refused to countersign the decree, although the speaker of parliament, Nabi Berri (a Shiite) agrees with Mr Hrawi. There are suspicions that Messrs Berri and Hrawi may even have cooked up the whole crisis to force Mr Hariri to resign - which Mr Hariri has no intention of doing - but they also have the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, on their side.

Clerics continue to insist on the importance of religious law although its results have often been as preposterous as they are tragic. An old friend of mine who died last year had converted to Islam to marry his wife - but was refused burial in a Christian cemetery by a priest who angrily told his family to find a Muslim grave. The Christian wife of another friend died during the war in the Muslim sector of Beirut; only a Muslim cemetery could be found for her, but the sheikh refused to bury her - until he had posthumously converted her to Islam.

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