14 February 2009

* Removing religious affiliation from the records

Every Lebanese can now remove any reference to religion from his or her Civil Registry record.

Every Lebanese can now remove any reference to religion from his or her Civil Registry record. But what will the consequences of doing so be in a country where one’s sect legally defines such personal matters as marriage and inheritance?  How will it affect electoral status given that voter’s rolls are still classified according to religion, as are candidates? To answer these questions NOW Lebanon spoke to activists, lawyers, pollsters and other experts.
Interior Minister Ziad Baroud has the will to enact change. 

If all goes according to plan, the state will eventually be obliged to create civil laws that govern the affairs of citizens, and if this is the case, then surely civil marriage is not far behind.
Religious diversity is ingrained in Lebanese cultural heritage and is an asset, but Baroud’s initiative will determine to what extent the Lebanese are ready to co-exist as individuals, and whether they are ready to live in a non-confessional system.  

Sticking with your sect
According to lawyer and activist Marie Rose Zalzal, striking out one’s sect from the civil record does not mean abandoning one’s religion. The freedom of belief guaranteed by the Lebanese constitution has always included the right to belong or not to belong to a certain sect, the right to declare or not this belonging at the Civil Status Registry, and the right to strike it out or amend it.
“It maintains the relation with the sect, but the difference is one need not declare his religion or sect to the state to be [a full citizen].” 
Therefore, one can choose to organize his or her personal affairs on the basis of a sectarian law or choose to do the opposite and seek a civil law. The act is thus only the exercising of an already existing right and does not contravene with one’s religion.

The effects of striking out your sect
Nayla Geagea, a lawyer and civil status activist, says the aim of this act is to show that the citizen’s relationship with the state is not necessarily sectarian and that a citizen can still abide by religious law. 
“The sectarian laws are still there, and it is only needed that one present his certificate of baptism to state he is Christian to the officer of the Civil Status Registry or make a formal declaration of faith to any Sheikh to prove he is Muslim, so if one wants to maintain his religious identity and abide by the laws it grants, he can always do so. On that account, one can still marry at the sheikh’s or in church. As for inheritance, Muslims can still refer to their Islamic Religious Tribunals, and the judge is obliged to act according to the Islamic Sharia, and Christians already have a civil law covering inheritance. If one wants to comply with civil laws, Muslims and Christian alike can seek a civil marriage abroad and then register it in Lebanon. On issues of inheritance both can seek to abide by civil law.”
As for electoral status, Geagea explained that Minister Baroud’s statement announcing that he would implement the law was made with the cooperation of the Consultation Committee at the Justice Ministry. Accordingly, the decision to remove the religious reference assures that the civilians doing so are entitled to all their civil rights, including standing for election. “The act is covered by both the Justice and Interior ministries, and there’s no danger at all in doing it.”

However, there are still questions regarding non-confessional electoral ballots, which it is hoped will lead to further changes in the future.
“Electoral rolls include the sect, and upon striking it out, the name is still there registered. The ballot boxes, on the other hand, are still classified according to confession or place of birth. This year, minor consequences may result given that the voter’s rolls were presented before this circulation took place, and the elections of 2009 may pass with no mishaps. However, from now till next elections, if the number of those striking out their confessions increased, the state will have to find a solution by creating another roll based on either place of birth or residence,” Geagea said.

How will Lebanese react?
Sociologist Mona Fayad says that while some people will support Baroud’s circular,  others won’t, a resistance some politicians might try to exploit.

However, on the whole, she sees Baroud’s move as a positive step.
“People are fed up and are open to change. I am expecting that the move would get a positive response from the masses that have been waiting for this change. This does not mean that there will not be opposition…This should not make anyone feel as if it would strip them of their identities. A civilian in Europe or even in Third World countries in South America is still a Catholic if he chooses to be without mentioning it to the state. Faith is personal.”  
But Fayad stresses that the circular is just a first step and should be followed by lobbying and campaigning by NGOs to publicize the issue. “Mobilized individuals may know of it, but others may not, and some may even fear taking the initiative unless he or she is provided with the right information to quiet people’s fears and reassure them.”


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Lebanon Time-Line

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