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Hussein Malla, AP
A Lebanese activist holds a placard in Arabic that reads, "I want to get married again-- a civil marriage for sure," as he marches with others during a protest demanding a law that guarantees any Lebanese citizen the right to a civil marriage, in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, March 1, 2015. Civil marriage is banned in Lebanon and only religious marriages are allowed. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

There was much to perplex the Greek official presiding over Samer and Eva’s wedding last summer.

To begin with, he was marrying a Lebanese-based Palestinian couple in front of a small party of mostly Lebanese guests on Santorini, an island to which most of them had never been.

Additionally, the bride was guided down a whitewashed staircase by her groom, suited in blue, standing in for her father, who didn’t make the trip. The entire bridal family, in fact, was noticeably absent.

Facing a still, shimmering sheet of the Mediterranean, Eva’s friends filled the seats to show their support — but the front row was occupied solely by Samer’s relatives.

For the overwhelmingly Lebanese wedding party, however, there was nothing unusual about this ceremony. Samer and Eva (not their real names) were marrying civilly, which until recently was considered illegal in Lebanon. Many of the guests had previously attended weddings like this one in neighboring countries such as Cyprus and Turkey, which allow civil marriages for those who come from countries that prohibit all but religious ceremonies.

And all were familiar with the stigma associated with interfaith marriages in their sectarian state, where unions between people of different religions are legally possible but socially frowned upon, making the absence of the Christian bride’s family at her wedding to a Muslim unfortunate, but not shocking.

Breaking with tradition

Perched on the Mediterranean, the small Middle Eastern state of Lebanon houses around 4.5 million people on a modest 10,452 square kilometers of territory. Inordinately, however, the country is shared by 18 religious sects living in awkward concord. To "keep the peace," all matters of personal status, including marriage, divorce and inheritance, are subject to religious rather than civil law. Much like the country’s power-sharing political system, which distributes governmental positions among the sects, its citizens are also defined (and limited) by religious affiliations they inherited but did not choose.

As a result of this pervasive system of political and social sectarianism, civil marriage was historically banned, forcing those desirous of it to wed in neighboring countries and then register their "foreign" marriages in Lebanon. In 2014, 560 Lebanese civil marriages took place in Cyprus alone, according to the Ministry of Foreign and Expatriate Affairs.

Instead of cultivating a unifying national culture and fostering cross-communal solidarity, Lebanon’s philosophy of governance, referred to as "coexistence in difference," has bred a rampant culture of divisive sectarianism. In a country scarred by a traumatic 15-year civil war between religious communities, people are encouraged to stick with their "own kind." Or, as the local saying goes, "a fish should swim in its own waters." Interfaith marriage then — the stuff most Lebanese civil ceremonies are made of — is perceived by many as both dangerous and dishonorable.

But in 2013, a Shiite Muslim named Nidal Darwish and his Sunni Muslim fiancée, Kholoud Sukkarieh, both now 31 years old, broke with social and political convention by successfully carrying out and registering the first civil marriage on Lebanese territory, revitalizing an existent but small and largely ineffective civil marriage movement and so far inspiring more than 50 couples to do what they previously thought was both legally and socially impossible. “We were trying to remove ourselves from the sectarian system,” Darwish explains. “Everything in our society is organized according to it. Having a civil marriage was our way of taking a small stand in support of a civil state.”

Darwish and Sukkarieh had originally intended to wed in Cyprus when a chance encounter with a lawyer in 2012 introduced the possibility of a civil ceremony in their home country. The lawyer had found a legal loophole — a decree that applies civil, rather than religious, law to the personal status matters of individuals who do not officially belong to a recognized religious community.

In Lebanon, a citizen must be associated with one of the officially recognized sects in order to marry, divorce, negotiate child custody and inheritance or vote. A landmark decree issued in 2007, however, allows Lebanese citizens to strike their religion from the state record, severing the "administrative" link to their sect and, technically, enabling themselves to marry civilly on Lebanese soil. Sukkarieh and Darwish are two of thousands of Lebanese who’ve made this controversial choice since then.

It took months for the couple to find a notary who agreed to marry them — because marriages in Lebanon had always been presided over by clergymen and registered in religious courts — and even longer to get their contract registered at the Ministry of Interior. Their marriage quickly became a contentious public affair, drawing both fierce support and indignant opposition. Lebanon’s Grand Mufti, spiritual leader of the country’s Sunni community, issued a fatwa, or religious proclamation, declaring couples who marry civilly apostates — a dangerous ruling perceived by many as the equivalent of a death sentence, which could be used by some to justify violence against such couples.

The couple received anonymous death threats through social media. Sukkarieh lost her job. Darwish, who now works at a health club in Beirut, lost business opportunities when his partner refused to collaborate with an "unbeliever" after they had spent two years developing an online platform for a medical company.

“I used to like that I had no enemies in this life,” Darwish says, laughing. “But now, there are all these people who perceive me in a negative way, who avoid me — friends, relatives, strangers.

"The thing is, these people oppose me, but I don’t oppose them. They are against civil marriage, but I’m not against religious marriage. Why do they care what I do? This is Daeshy (Daesh is the Arabic name for ISIS) thinking.” Darwish is not an atheist, and he sees no contradiction between his religious convictions and his decision to marry civilly. How people choose to practice their religion is a private and personal matter, he explains. Society has no right to judge or intervene.

Making history

Despite the controversy, the highest judiciary committee in Lebanon eventually found Sukkarieh and Darwish’s marriage legal, and the interior minister at the time had no choice but to sign their contract, bringing their struggle to a successful end in 2013 and paving the way for other couples that followed suit. In September of that year, the couple made Lebanese history once again by welcoming the country’s first "sect-less" baby, choosing to leave the field unaddressed on their son Ghadi’s birth certificate.

In February, however, Lebanon’s current interior minister, Nouhad Machnouk, announced that he would no longer be registering the contracts of civil marriages performed in Lebanon because of a lack of official laws regulating nonreligious unions. While the state has a legal obligation to recognize these marriages, Machnouk cannot be ordered to register them. The decision has therefore trapped more than 40 couples in administrative limbo, legally married but unregistered.

If this drags on, the consequences will be serious. The children of unregistered marriages, for example, would be legally designated "illegitimate," able to inherit only a fraction of what they would as the "legitimate" offspring of registered couples. While it’s possible to legally challenge Machnouk’s decision, the opposition of the majority of Lebanon’s religious authorities, who possess momentous influence over their constituencies, has made it difficult to rally the kind of substantial social opposition needed to force the minister’s hand and move toward institutionalizing civil marriage once and for all.

Removing the stigma of civil marriage

In 1998, Lebanon’s then President Elias Hrawi proposed a bill for optional civil marriage. It was approved by the cabinet but shelved due to opposition from then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose decision was backed by many of the country’s religious authorities. In March of 2011, a number of civil society organizations submitted a draft law on civil marriage to parliament, but it was never debated.

“Why? Because people are scared of civil marriage,” explains lawyer Nael Kaedbey, an activist with the group Civil Marriage in Lebanon. “Sheikhs and priests have a lot of pull, especially when it comes to the afterlife. And people tend to be weary of the afterlife. Religious figures might not be able to tell people who to vote for, but they can tell them they’ll go to hell for having a civil marriage.”

The majority of Lebanese are not directly opposed to civil marriage, Kaedbey says. There is a small minority that fervently objects to it, and a small minority that passionately supports it. The majority — the "swing vote" — is composed of those who would rather not engage the controversial subject. In a country of people who for the most part possess some degree of Godly belief — even if they’re not pious in the strict sense of the word — having a religious marriage is just easier. “They’d rather avoid the inconvenience of worrying about hell,” Kaedbey says.

The problem, then, is not with Lebanon’s legal system, which can already accommodate civil marriage, but with society itself, Kaedbey says. Organizations like his believe their role is not to propose laws but to dispel the stigma surrounding both interfaith and civil marriages by "proving" that they’re not incompatible with any of Lebanon’s religions.

“We want to pull the rug out from under these religious leaders. They can’t go on TV and say that, for example, a Muslim who is married civilly will not be washed when he or she dies, will not be interred in Muslim cemeteries, will not be prayed upon," he says. "They don’t have the right to legislate according to the teachings of God. People have a right to interpret their beliefs for themselves. Only God can judge them.”

Kaedbey scrolls through an app of Quranic verses on his phone while elaborating on his organization’s findings. “Take polygamy, for example” — which civil marriage prohibits. Contrary to both popular belief and religious convention, the Quran does not allow polygamy, which is legal for Muslim men in Lebanon. “The text is clear,” says Kaedbey. The Quran stipulates that a man may only take more than one wife if he is certain he can treat them all fairly. It goes on to say, however, that no one but God can ensure that kind of egalitarianism, in essence prohibiting the practice. “Marriage shall remain monogamous. Our defense is rooted in religion,” Kaedbey asserts.

In Christianity, marriage is a sacrament, not just a contract. “We had to go back in history to resolve this issue,” Kaedbey says. He references the marital practices of the early Christians who were subject to the pagan laws of the Roman Empire. “They used to get married civilly, under Roman law, which allowed polygamy and divorce and a whole lot of other stuff that isn’t allowed in Christianity, but that didn’t stop people from getting married according to that law but then abiding by how their faith instructs them to behave,” he argues. “Christianity doesn’t force anything on its practitioners. It offers direction and encourages people to live up to the teachings of Christ regardless of what civil law is imposed on them.”

Looking to the future

It’s been a year since Eva spoke to her parents. She exhausted herself trying to persuade them that interfaith marriage wasn’t an inherently bad idea. “They are convinced that people, at some point in their life, go back to aslon (their origins). They worried my husband would make me put on the veil. I was frustrated that they never asked about his personality, values or achievements. I asked them, what if I married a Christian who beat me or cheated on me?”

Samer’s parents were also opposed to both interfaith and civil marriage at first. “When we met her, things changed,” Samer’s father says. “She was wonderful and perfect for our son. Isn’t that all a parent wants for their child?” A pious man, Samer’s dad was much more opposed to civil marriage, passionately rejecting the idea at first. But Samer and Eva were insistent. “Having a civil marriage was the civilized thing to do,” she says.

Samer’s father decided to consult the Quran along with works of Islamic jurisprudence himself. He found that all of the requirements needed to contractually bind a marriage in Islam were covered by civil procedures, leaving no concrete reason for objection on religious grounds. “I realized that the objections of religious authorities had nothing to do with religion, but with earthly power and personal interests.”

As for Machnouk, the interior minister, his hope of deterring civil marriage in Lebanon through the current stalemate hasn’t been as successful as he might have predicted. “In spite of it all, people are still getting married civilly,” says Darwish. “They send their files to the ministry and say, ‘hold on to them.’ Some people aren’t even asking for their papers back.” Machnouk is committing a wrong, Darwish asserts, confident that those who err will, in the end, be held accountable.

The fight for civil marriage, Kaedbey explains passionately, is about the very definition of citizenship in Lebanon. It’s about the sanctity of the constitution, which defines all of the country’s citizens as equals. “How can we be one people if we refuse to marry one another?” For now, though, he’s advising his clients against marrying civilly in Lebanon. “Not everyone is cut out for a fight. Some people just want to get married.”

Sophie Chamas is a Lebanese freelance writer and co-editor of the Middle East-focused online publishing platform Mashallah News. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @SophsC87