Has Patriarch Bechara Rai relaunched the civil marriage campaign in Lebanon? During a Q&A session with school students yesterday, the Lebanese Maronite Church’s top priest voiced his support for compulsory civil marriage, which he said would solve the problem of Christian and Muslim “non-believers” who want to get married.
But before we get excited that a powerful religious leader is finally on our side, let’s take a closer look at what Rai’s words really mean, because with this wily priest, matters are rarely as straightforward as they seem.
First of all, Rai is calling for compulsory civil marriage, and not optional civil marriage, which was the demand of the campaign during the late 1990s. Optional civil marriage gives citizens the choice of having their personal status issues (namely marriage, divorce, and in the case of Muslims, inheritance as well) dealt with by state institutions (i.e. the judiciary). In both cases, the Maronite Church and other religious sects would lose significant influence over people’s lives. And, dare we say it, they would lose some of their income as well.
By calling for compulsory civil marriage, Rai effectively and intentionally closes the door on any progress on the issue because he knows very well that his Muslim counterparts oppose it. By discarding optional civil marriage and stating that it should be compulsory for all Lebanese, Muslim and Christian, he has blocked any chance of debate with Muslim religious leaders. Compulsory civil marriage is his response to demands for the abolition of political sectarianism: he asks for full secularism, knowing that it will be rejected. The Patriarch is resorting to the old trick (political sectarianism vs. full secularism) that characterized the Muslim-Christian intellectual debate in the 1960s-1970s. The war and subsequent political arrangements got many to forget this period.
This is why it is important not to fall into the trap. If activists and citizens who genuinely support civil marriage approach him for support, his likely response would be: “I support COMPULSORY civil marriage, so don’t talk to me, go to the other religious leaders.”
Although counter-intuitive, and in façade less progressive, a real civil marriage campaign should focus on optional civil marriage, i.e. giving citizens the choice to have their personal status issues administered by the state courts and not religious courts.