Civil marriage in Lebanon: two newlyweds try to restart the stalled process
During his tenure as interior minister, Nohad Machnouk stopped allowing civil marriages to be registered in Lebanon. Now, four months into the term of current Interior Minister Raya el-Hassan, Abdallah Salam and Marie-Joe Abi-Nassif are trying to register their civil union in Beirut.
Every year, thousands of Lebanese travel abroad, mostly to Cyprus, to get married in civil ceremonies. Like many of their young contemporaries, Abdallah Salam and Marie-Joe Abi-Nassif wanted a civil marriage. But instead of traveling, they decided to celebrate in the city where they both grew up: Beirut. Their wedding, on June 15, was conducted by a notary, not by a priest or a sheikh, and they are still waiting for their marriage contract to be registered in Lebanon’s civil status records. In an exclusive interview with L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ), the couple explains that their choice came from a “feeling of responsibility” and a desire to “participate in the building of a constitutional and legal state” in Lebanon.
At 32 years old, Abdallah Salam has an impressive resume. He’s an associate attorney at Shearman & Sterling, an international law firm in New York, and has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard, a master’s degree in philosophy and doctorate in legal theory from Oxford, a legal master’s degree (LLM) from Sciences Po Paris and a juris doctor (JD) from Columbia.
In 2012, while writing his thesis at Oxford, Salam decided he wanted to take a closer look at civil marriage in Lebanon. That November, he flew to Beirut to attend the civil ceremony of Khouloud Succariye and Nidal Darwiche, the first ever conducted in Lebanon. "At this wedding, I felt a great sense of freedom, and I had the impression that right and justice had triumphed," Salam recalls.
He wrote an open letter in OLJ to Marwan Charbel, minister of interior at the time, requesting that he register the union in the civil status records, a position that had previously gained unconditional support from then president Michel Sleiman and Minister of Justice Chakib Cortbaoui. The marriage was eventually registered in April 2013 following a decision by the High Authority of the Department of Legislation and Consultations in the Ministry of Justice.
Less than a year later, in January 2014, Salam decided to remove the reference to his sect (Sunni) from his civil status record, a procedure allowed by a 2009 memorandum issued by Ziyad Baroud, minister of interior at the time. "It's not a question of religious belief, but rather a citizen's choice. I do not want my relationship with the state to have to go through a religious or denominational intermediary," Salam says, pointing out that the Greek-Catholic Bishop Gregoire Haddad was among the first to remove his confession from the registers of civil status.
When his new papers arrived stating that he was “without confession”, Salam sent them back and requested they be returned with the sign “/”, as required by Baroud’s memorandum, a reflection of the choice not to declare a specific sectarian affiliation. "From then on, I knew that when I would get married I would do it civilly and in Beirut," Salam says.
Later in 2014, during his first year at Columbia University, Salam met Marie-Joe Abi-Nassif, who has a law degree from Saint Joseph University in Beirut and a master’s degree in business law from Paris II-Assas University. She had just started studying for an LLM at Columbia. “What I found most attractive about Abdallah were his deep humanist values and the principles he fights for every day," Abi-Nassif says. She has now put her career as a mergers and acquisitions lawyer at Latham & Watkins, an international firm in New York, on pause to pursue her passion: opera.
In October 2017, Salam proposed to Abi-Nassif at Lincoln Center in New York. In February 2019, Abi-Nassif, with her mother’s support, began the process of removing the reference to her sect (Maronite) from her civil status file. "When it was done, I felt an enormous sense of freedom," she says. "My mother, who is a believer and religiously observant, was very proud of me… She knows that this decision reflects my patriotism and has nothing to do with my religious beliefs, which belong to the personal sphere."
Abi-Nassif’s father, Joseph, was a general in the Lebanese Army. She always looked at him with pride and a sense of patriotism. He lived through Lebanon’s wars and was a prisoner of war in Israel for a year. "He criticized the Lebanese for not having a common identity. He believed that confessions have always been a deterrent to the civil state, which was a fundamental problem in Lebanon," she says. As a tribute to her father, who died in 2013, she now wants to "be part of the construction of a state under the rule of law and of this feeling of belonging."
Salam, for his part, grew up in a Beiruti political family, which helped nurture his sense of civic responsibility. His father, Nawaf Salam, is a judge at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and a former Lebanese permanent delegate to the United Nations. His mother, Nada Sehnaoui, was a Beirut Madinati candidate during the 2016 municipal elections. And, Salam likes to point out that his great grandfather, Salim Salam, was a member of the Ottoman Parliament and “one of the most progressive figures in Beirut".
Celebrating their civil marriage in Beirut, “a free and modern city which is open to the Mediterranean”, was obvious, says Abdallah.
"This decision is part of a vision we both share of our country; a country where all citizens are respected and equal in their rights and obligations," says Abi-Nassif; who refuses to be “subjected to confessional and archaic laws”.
“It's a matter of equality," Salam adds. “In religious marriages as well as in religious courts, women are not equal to men."
On June 15, Salam, wearing a dark suit and bow tie, and Abi-Nassif, in an embroidered white dress, stood before Joseph Bechara, president of the Council of Notaries in Lebanon, at the Sursock Gardens. There were numerous dignitaries amongst the guests, including former Speaker of Parliament Hussein Husseini, former ministers of interior Ziyad Baroud and Salah Salman, former Minister of Education Hassan Mneimne, former Minister of Culture Tarek Mitri, former Minister of Energy Maurice Sehnaoui and AUB President Fadlo Khoury.
"This moment is a moment of happiness for the married couple, their friends, their families and also for Lebanon," Bechara said to a round of cheers and applause. “This decision is the fruit of their free will supported by the Lebanese Constitution, the Declaration of human rights, the founding texts of the Lebanese Republic, including the decree number 60 / LR, and in the light of the legal opinions issued from the highest authorities that confirmed the legality of their marriage in Lebanon."
Bechara then read Salam and Abi-Nassif’s marriage contract, a document similar to the one signed by Khouloud and Nidal and dozens of other couples who chose to be married in civil ceremonies in Lebanon. The contract stipulates that both spouses are equal in rights and that they promise to respect each other, help each other, ensure the education of their future children and share in their joint life.
The young couple signed their marriage contract on a table adorned with nothing but the Lebanese flag, and it was authenticated by the notary. “You are united by the bonds of marriage. A thousand mabrouks,” Bechara concluded.
The Post-Ceremony Obstacle Course
The newlyweds still have an important and complex task to complete: the registration of their union. "Our marriage respects all legal norms and procedures," Salam and Abi-Nassif say confidently.
On June 17, the president of the Union of Mukhtars authenticated their marriage contract. The next day, the Ministry of Interior acknowledged receiving the document and registered it in the “sejel el-wared” (reception register, Ed). Now, they are waiting for the contract to be transferred to the “sejel el-tanfiz” (execution register, Ed) for it to be officially registered. According to article 21 of decree number 60, the transfer time is supposed to be 24 hours. After two weeks, Salam and Abi-Nassif, who were unaware of this deadline, started losing patience.
At the beginning of Interior Minister Raya el-Hassan’s term in mid-February, she responded to a question from Euronews saying that she was "for a framework regulating civil marriage in Lebanon. I will try to open the door for a serious and profound dialogue on this subject.”
It did not take long for religious authorities to start voicing their opposition. Civil marriage "is contrary to the Islamic religion" and "threatens family cohesion," the Mufti of the Republic, Sunni Sheikh Abdellatif Deriane, warned in an interview with the interior minister. "A Christian person cannot marry civilly because it would be in sin, especially as this form of marriage goes against the sacrament," added the Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, despite previously announcing that he favored a "binding, single civil law that would be imposed on all".
Earlier this week, Salam and Abi-Nassif received word that resistance from the General Directorate of Civil Status in the Ministry of Interior is the reason why their marriage certificate hasn’t been transferred to “sejel el-tanfiz” yet. "It does not matter whether the minister of interior is for or against civil marriage. The important thing is that she applies the law because the legality of civil marriage concluded in Lebanon by citizens who have removed reference regarding their religious denomination is a question that has been definitively decided,” say the newlyweds. "It is not within the competence or prerogatives of the Ministry of Interior to question the legal issues that the High Authority of the Department of Legislation and Consultations within the Ministry of Justice has decided.”
In theory, the Ministry of Interior should be required to register the marriage, according to former minister Ziyad Baroud. The thirteen civil marriages that have been registered in Lebanon set a legal precedent, he said, and decree 60 / LR, issued on March 13, 1936 by the French High Commissioner at the time "is still in force and has legislative values". According to Article 10 of the decree, "Syrian and Lebanese members of a common law community, as well as those who do not belong to any community, are governed in matters of personal status by civil law".
By choosing to cancel their sectarian affiliations, Salam and Abi-Nassif joined the ranks of people who “do not belong to any community”. As a result, their marriage must be completed under civil law. Their marriage, according to Baroud, is significant because it is the first civil union that has been conducted in Lebanon since Raya el-Hassan became Interior Minister and “openly pronounced to be in favor of an optional civil marriage".
"This is a great opportunity for her to make her words concrete, especially since she has enough solid foundations to accept the registration of this marriage: the law, precedents and most importantly, the opinion of the high advisory council affiliated to the Ministry of Justice, which is the highest consultative body in the country and which voted in favor of this procedure in 2013,” Baroud said. Still, it is not supposed to be el-Hassan’s responsibility to register the marriage. "Usually, it's the General Directorate of Personal Status that receives the papers and registers them," Baroud says. “However, the General Directorate of Personal Status refuses to register this form of marriage without getting the minister’s instructions first. "
El-Hassan’s decision will be even more important because her predecessor, Nohad Machnouk, decided to halt the procedure for civil marriages in Lebanon in 2015, citing what he said was the lack of an adequate legislative framework. During Machnouk’s time in office, around 55 civil marriages were conducted without being registered, according to Baroud.
"The legislative framework exists via the decree 60,” Baroud says. “Civil marriage is a contract, and when one refers in this contract to clear texts, even if the latter are not Lebanese, these texts should regulate the marriage. We must stop the schizophrenia... Since Lebanese civil courts apply foreign civil laws when a civil marriage is contracted abroad, I do not see any problem in civil marriages in Lebanon referring to foreign civil laws in the absence of Lebanese texts regarding this issue."
Since Lebanon does not have a unified personal status code, all matters relating to personal status, such as marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance or other issues, are subject to personal status law related to one’s community. Therefore, civil unions celebrated abroad are subject to the law of the country in which the marriage was conducted. In the case of Salam and Abi-Nassif, the contract and its legal outcomes are subject to French law.
"It is true that the objective is to have an optional civil law in Lebanon. But in the meantime, it is not justifiable to prevent these unions when they are contracted on Lebanese territory," Baroud insists.
"We really do not need to hinder the evolution towards civil marriage under the pretext that we have to wait for a law that organizes it”, former general director of the Ministry of Justice Hassan Tabet Rifaat wrote in OLJ in 2013.
(This article was originally pubished in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 2nd of July)