27/02/2009

Reform of the civil status form in Lebanon

Press review – week from February 23 to 27, 2009

At a time when religion has a growing place in the Middle East and in a country characterized by a community fragmentation, a circular issued by the Interior Minister Ziad Baroud on February 11th allows Lebanese citizens not to record his religious confession, to delete the reference in his civil status form or to keep it, says AFP.

A historical decision

During the civil war, the Lebanese have lived under the fear of « the identity card killings. » Indeed, since religion is written on the paper, it was easy for a militia to decide the fate of people, depending on the community to which they belonged, said La Libre Belgique. When the civil war ended, the mention of the confession has been removed from identity cards but not from the civil registers which are required for any administrative demand and in the professional field.

This is a historical decision in a country which recognizes 18 faiths and where power and posts in public administrations are based on the religious communities. These communities also benefit from legislative and judicial autonomy in matters of personal status: therefore, on issues such as marriage, divorce or inheritance, Lebanese people are not submitted to the same legal regime. For some associations, this new step could lead to the creation of a civil marriage, which does not exist today in Lebanon.

However, it seems difficult to assess now the consequences of this circular. « This is a historical decision (…) but in terms of impact, it will depend on the response of the Lebanese, » says Kamal Salibi, a historian and member of the Lebanese Center for the civilian national initiative, in the Belgian daily.

A positive symbol rather than a secularization of Lebanon

Many civil society representatives, while welcoming the decision of the Minister of Interior, stressed that this initiative was essentially symbolic. « It is a step in the right direction, but the government must go a step further and ensure that all citizens have an access to personal status laws that are not based on religion and that they can receive an equal treatment” , considers Nadim Houry, the Human Rights Watch representative in Lebanon, in La Libre Belgique.

Meanwhile, religious leaders remain serene after the directive of Minister of Interior. “The Church is not worried about this decision, which does not question anything for us, » says Father Bou Qassem, director of the Catholic Information Center. This opinion is also shared by Noukari Sheikh Mohamed, Director of Dar el-Fatwa, the Sunni community board. Nevertheless, it seems needed to put the consequences of this measure in perspective, particularly concerning the establishment of a civil marriage in Lebanon since no religious leader thinks that this measure could lead the Lebanese society to civil marriage, despite the support to such reform by a great fringe of the society for years. On the issue of civil marriage, Father Bou Qassem says that « the Church is against (…) but if a decision is taken, we will accept it of course » while Sheikh Noukari says he was « totally against » and ensures « that there will never be a civil marriage in Lebanon » since it « would put Lebanon in danger because it would affect the compromise between religions on which the country is based. » La Libre Belgique explains that some analysts believe that it is mostly for fear of losing their influence that religious leaders are opposed to civil marriage.

In addition, the BBC stressed what Human Rights groups recalled: in a country like Lebanon, this decision is positive but purely symbolic. Indeed, Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch argues that despite this new measure, the whole system will remain based on the religious denomination of citizens. Indeed, if someone decided to delete the mention of his religion from his civil status form, the State will anyway have to know it in order to be able to decide under which practice his marriage or divorce has to be proceed.

Therefore, Human and civil rights associations launch campaigns advocating for a unified civil code under which the representatives of all religious groups would be equally treated. But for the BBC, such a reform still seems far away for Lebanon.