No more Lebanese confessions?

The Lebanese interior ministry issued a memorandum allowing citizens to conceal their religious confession from their registry documents. Seen as a pioneering decision - a step forward towards a civil state - some enthusiastically welcomed the change and are willing to take the campaign further, while others doubt its ability to end the fiercely sectarian system.
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A copy of the civil registry record that will no longer require a person to list his religious affiliation. A slash ( /) will now be used if a person chooses "no religion."

BEIRUT, February 22, 2009 (MENASSAT)-  On February 13, the Lebanese government gave people the right to erase any reference to religious confession on civil registry records, a move being hailed as bringing Lebanon a step closer to full abandonment of confessional records.

Interior Minister Ziad Baroud's memorandum does not mean automatic removal of confessional designations from current civil registry records

However, it instructs the registrar to accept any request to erase confession without any additional red-tape - replacing a person's religious identity with a slash sign ( / ).

The memo is not without its critics, who say the change is merely symbolic and does not change the deep-rooted sectarian  divisions that have intermittently spilled over into street violence since the end of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.

Band-aid solution

This is the third state form of identification in Lebanon where religion has been removed as a compulsory part of the application process, along with the passport and the ID card. 
Lebanon applies a religious "personal status law" granting spiritual authorities absolute power over citizens regarding issues such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, and the new memo is likely create legal challenges.

There are no secular family courts in Lebanon - with citizens referred to state-subsidized courts run by confessional judges that implement their own laws

Baroud's memo would put people with "no" religious affiliation into a sort of legal limbo, with no clear indication as to what family court they would be tried in.

"What needs to happen is for these people to be covered constitutionally and legislatively," Paul Salem, director at the public policy think tank, the Carnegie Middle East center said in a recent interview.

Longterm solution

In a country where the top leadership and parliamentary  posts are apportioned according to sectarian divisions - split down the middle between Christians and Muslims - there has been significant room for political maneuvering along sectarian  lines over the years.

Much of these sectarian divisions were further cemented after the Taif Accord ended the civil war in 1990.   

Initially, the accord included the formation of a body – a "national council for abolishing political sectarianism" – that was largely a product of political lip-service having never been constituted.

Arabi al-Andari, head of the National Union of Democratic Youth (NUDY), told MENASSAT that he hopes the memorandum will expose the political opportunism that plagues the Lebanese system.

"We were planning to go with a number of groups to the civil registrar departments all over the country to apply for the concealment of confessions from records," Al-Andari said.

Despite his groups lengthy campaign to change the compulsory listing of confessions in the civic registry, the interior ministry has asked that Al-Andari's group hold off the NUDYs registration campaign.

"He said they would have problems accommodating us, since the Civil Registry staff has been overloaded finishing the electoral voting lists for the upcoming (June) elections."

Andari added, "We responded politely saying we would postpone our action for a week or 2, but that we wouldn't wait forever. This will be a test for how non-sectarian people really are in Lebanon."

Campaigners like Al-Andari have said they hope the number of applications will be huge - "in the tens of thousands" he said.

One more step to civic citizenship

There has been a long history of groups pressuring the Civic Registry to drop the confessional ID process, but officials have told organizers like Al-Andari that it was easier to "change confessions" than to list "no confession."

"It seems the system does not mind which confession you belong to, as long as you belong to one," he said. 

According to Article 9 of the Lebanese constitution, the freedom of thought and belief is guaranteed, and the memo leaves some room for challenging the confessional system.

Talal al-Husseini, head of another civil society group, the Civil Center for the National Initiative, said the decision was a definite step towards a secular state.

Asked about the next logical step towards the abolishment of confessionalism, Al-Husseini told MENASSAT his center was preparing a campaign, "to push for an optional civil personal status law."

The group says they've secured the commitments of interior minister Ziad Baroud and State minister Yousif Taqla, who both pledged to bring the proposed law to the cabinet.

If successful, having an actual guideline codified into law would allow for such things like civil marriages, which currently are not possible in Lebanon.

Too little too late

Can a massive number of applications to have confessions dropped from the civic registry actually affect change?

Journalist Doha Shams is among a large group of skeptics. She wrote in Al-Akhbar newspaper, "Do Lebanese truly dream of a secular civil state? And how many of them have this dream?

She suggests, "The days following the (NUDY) campaign to conceal the confession will answer this question. There are many questions raised by those enthusiastic about the idea, especially that floating block of Lebanese who still refuse to join the cycle of sectarianism as a matter of principle."

Some are describing the memorandum as "too little too late," since the problem actually lies in the confessional personal status law, with its far-reaching powers granted to religious authorities.

The problem deepens further, critics say, because the confession system also ends up equating the legal rights of an individual with those of their corresponding sect.

Shams ask in her article, "And in case one does remove his confession, how can this affect the upcoming elections? How will it affect marriage and inheritance? Will this step have any meaning without a civil personal status law? And what will the reaction of both religious and political lords of confessions be, if there's any difference between each of them?"
The late president Elias Hrawi authored a civil marriage proposition during his term in the 1990s that was met by near absolute condemnation by Lebanon's religious leaders.

Attempts to strike out the confession from the registry go back to 1969, the first attempt that failed, as al-Huseini explains.

Meanwhile, staffers at the Civil Center for the National Initiative told MENASSAT that the road to a civil state was still far off.

"A first step in the thousand miles journey,"  Al-Andari suggested.