Losing my religion (on paper)

Losing my religion (on paper)
Feature: Sectarianism almost destroyed Lebanon. Now a group of activists are looking to build a modern secular state, with religious identity a personal matter not a national crisis.
4 min read
05 May, 2015
Lebanese activists are looking for civil marriages to be allowed [AFP]

Whenever a new interior minister is appointed in Lebanon, Talal al-Husseini, director of the administrative commission at the civic centre, requests a meeting.

His purpose is always the same: to petition the minister about removing religious affiliations from family registration records and civil marriage certificates.

These two issues are integral to making Lebanon a secular state - an important issue where sect and religious differences risk spilling over into another civil war.

Husseini admits that he is fighting an uphill battle; when changes take place inside the interior ministry it appears all his work takes him back to square one.

There have been four interior ministers since he began his petition to remove affiliations from legal papers in 2007 (this was approved in 2008), and there have been two different ministers since the first civil marriage was registered in Lebanon.

Despite the fact that what he is campaigning for is in line with Lebanon's legislation, they have not been practically applied by the authorities.

Official hyperbole

According to figures from Lebanon's interior ministry, there are more than 15,000 citizens with no religious affiliation.

However, most of these people are Protestants who have traditionally not declared their affiliation, or foreigners married to Lebanese people, rather than individuals demonstrating their secularism.

Arabi al-Andari, a member of the civil commission for the freedom of choice, said that the number of people who took part in a campaign to not declare their religious affiliation did not exceed 1,000.

That is despite the campaign running for seven years and disillusionment with their country's sectarian system being common.

"[There are] hurdles imposed by the government to prevent this move from succeeding by suggesting it is illegal, and that it would deprive citizens of their civil rights such as obtaining public sector jobs, run in the elections, or even vote," Andari explains.

It seems not being able to hold public sector posts is the biggest source of concern for many Lebanese people.

Many who previously removed their religious affiliation from the records had to register again after their applications for public sector jobs were rejected.

However, Andari says the rejection of their applications was arbitrary and not legal.

"The commission was able to get a ruling upholding the right of those who remove religious affiliations from their record to apply for public sector jobs," Andani said.

But this is not enough to guarantee that they will be unfairly discriminated against during the application process.

'No religious affiliation'

It is ironic that it is illegal, officially at least, to run for election on a sectarian platform.

After the Taif Agreement was signed, which ended Lebanon's sectarian-driven civil war, the first election was supposed to take place on a non-sectarian basis, while a senate was supposed to be formed. None of this happened.

According to electoral law, only a family registration number and listed place of residence are required to vote, not a religious affiliation. 

     Ending the norm of registering religious affiliations would undermine the heart of the sectarian system.
Arabi al-Andari, secular activist

"Ending the norm of registering religious affiliations would undermine the heart of the sectarian system which, paradoxically, blatantly contradicts the law," said Andari.

He said that international conventions that Lebanon had signed up to prevented any child from being attributed to a religion or sect before adulthood.

"Therefore, when we determine in birth certificates the sectarian identity of the newborn, we would be denying them this right," he said.

The path to removing religious affiliation from the records remains a long and thorny issue. Many Lebanese complain that registration officers in their constituencies refuse requests to remove religious identities from ID cards.

Sometimes, the registration officers even add the phrase "no religious affiliation" instead of leaving the space blank as required, something that many demur is not their goal, which is simply to remove their religion from the records and not forsake it.

"The role of the interior ministry is administrative in implementation of the law and not to enact law. Nevertheless, each time we have a new minister, we have to start the discussion from zero without there being any material or legal reason warranting a reconsideration," Husseini said.

Perhaps the most blatant example in this comes to registering civil marriages.

It leaves a conundrum for those Lebanese who decide not to affiliate themselves officially to any religion or sect. Those who choose this option are legally entitled to go through civil courts for rites such as marriage.

Although seven civil marriages in Lebanon were registered by former interior minister Marwan Charbel, the current minister, Nouhad Machnouk, has reset the clock - and 45 marriages are waiting to be registered.

In "civilised" nations, Hussein says, when such issues arise, the solution is to hold a referendum and let the people decide.

In Lebanon, where people do not have this luxury, secularists need a lot of patience and perseverance.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.