Bid to strike sect from records gains momentum

Beirut, Lebanon - A campaign to strike the reference to one’s sect on civil registration records is slowly picking up steam, although young people might face bureaucratic and other obstacles when they take the step.

The campaign, under the slogan of encouraging equality among citizens, is being organized by a number of youth organizations including the Union of Lebanese Democratic Youth (ULDY), the Progressive Youth Organization and the youth branches of the Lebanese Communist Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the People’s Movement.

The “National Campaign to Abolish Mentioning Confessions on Civil Registry Records” was initiated by the ULDY a year ago with a gathering at Al-Ain, a small town in the Baalbek region, with considerable sectarian diversity.

“Our first experience at Al-Ain was very encouraging,” said Arabi Andari, who was representing the ULDY Saturday in Beirut, where campaigners gathered to encourage people to take part.

“Youssef Jaafar, the mukhtar of the town, was the first to make the change to his record that day and he personally encouraged the residents of Al-Ain to remove the religious reference from their civil records.”

The 100 inhabitants of the village, which has experienced clashes among Sunni and Shiites in the past, were the first of many Lebanese to undertake the symbolic change.

More than 60 people made the change Saturday in southern regions such as Tyre, Sidon and Nabatieh, organizers said. Northern regions were less successful this time around, but still had about 30 people, who visited registries mainly in Tripoli.

As for Beirut, the group of university students who gathered at the Interior Ministry were unable to make the changes to their records. One year ago this month, when the campaign kicked off, Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud permitted citizens from different regions to make the changes at the ministry in the capital, instead of making the trip to their home towns, but the exception was not made this time.

Mohammad Issam Jammoul, who was rebuffed in his attempt to process the request at the Interior Ministry, said he had been looking forward to taking the first step Saturday, and very disappointed that his request could not be processed in Beirut.

Asked why he decided to make the change, Jammoul said that “my choice of religion is between my God and myself, but when it comes down to my identity in my country, I want to be a Lebanese citizen first.”

Striking one’s confession from official records might be seen as a symbolic act, but it also involve repercussions in a country where the sectarian system is firmly entrenched, and people “protect” themselves by sticking with co-religionists. According to Andari, a few people who have already made the change have faced complications.

He said that a young man’s application for a job with the Internal Security Forces was refused because his record did not mention any religious affiliation, and a couple of high school graduates who wanted to join the Lebanese Army were unable to do so for the same reason.

Hiba al-Awar, a member of the ULDY, made the change a year ago.

“It’s the first step on the long road toward getting fair and equal civil rights for everyone,” Awar said.

When asked about how parents who experienced the harsh divisions of the Lebanese 1975-90 Civil War reacted to their children’s decision to make this change, the ULDY member said that some parents panic and forbid their child from going through with it, while others surprisingly tag along and visit the registries to make the change for the whole family.

According to Hussein Mroueh, the secretary general of the ULDY, many people are hesitant to make the change because they are worried about the repercussion for legal formalities that involve marriage or inheritance. For example, Muslims can’t pass on their assets to their children if they’re not officially registered as Muslims.

However, Mroueh stressed that in a worst-case scenario, the change can easily be reversed.

“Government institutions aren’t prepared to deal with this change and don’t know how to proceed with a person’s documents if they don’t mention a religious affiliation,” said Andari, criticizing the exaggerated role that sectarian affiliation plays in civil-status documents and the country as a whole.

Despite the recurring obstacles, leaders of the campaign appear determined to persevere in their quest for equality.

“We are not renouncing our religion,” said Andari, “we’re simply making a symbolic change to show we’re all the same, despite our beliefs.”