When Kholoud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwish married in defiance of Lebanon’s ban on civil unions, they had no idea their initiative would attract so much support from fellow citizens - and even the president.
The entire process took nearly a year and was done in secret to sidestep political obstacles.
The couple, from different Muslim sects, recited their vows in an intimate ceremony late last year at Sukkarieh’s home with her brother as witness.
Civil unions still have no legal basis the Middle Eastern country, and their marriage has yet to gain the interior ministry’s approval.
Lebanon is a multi-confessional country of some four million people where Muslims - Sunnis and Shiites - make up the majority but with a Christian minority of around 35 percent and a sprinkling of other religions.
Most faiths have their own regulations governing marriage, divorce and inheritance, and mixed Christian-Muslim weddings in Lebanon are discouraged unless one of the spouses converts.
So when Sukkarieh and Darwish publicly announced the historic step, the news took Lebanese social networks by storm.
Even President Michel Sleiman joined the public debate, saying via Twitter and Facebook that civil marriage would build unity in the multi-faith Arab country, his post garnering nearly 8,000 “likes.”
“We need civil marriage to overcome the sectarianism that is destroying the country,” read one respondent.
Lebanese authorities recognize civil marriages registered abroad, and it has become common for mixed-faith couples to marry in nearby Cyprus.
Rather than follow that route, however, Sukkarieh and Darwish decided to work with legal advisers attempting to create new jurisprudence, though there is no history of civil marriage in Lebanon.
Both had their sect, Shiite and Sunni Muslim, legally struck from their “sejel an-nufoos”, or family register, to be wed as secular couple under an article dating from the 1936 French mandate that makes reference to civil unions.
“Civil marriage for us is not only a marriage issue, it’s actually a Lebanese issue because it lays the first stone of a non-sectarian regime,” Sukkarieh told AFP.
“If we are a couple by civil marriage, this means we will have our rights as citizens and not as daughters and sons of the sects.”
Former president Elias Hrawi in 1998 proposed a civil marriage law, which gained approval from the cabinet only to be halted amid widespread opposition from the country’s religious authorities.
And in a country rife with deep-rooted sectarian tensions, many still oppose such unions.
“Civil marriage is contrary to Islamic law,” one opponent of the practice said in a post on the president’s Facebook page. Another argued that such a law would “dissolve Christianity in the Middle East.”
Prime Minister Najib Mikati too has joined the debate, being quoted Wednesday in newspapers as saying, “It is futile to research the issue of civil marriage. As long as I am president of the government, I will not raise this subject in the council of ministers.”
The couple blamed the political system, not clergy members, for the obstacles they have faced.
“Politicians are trying to oppose this because civil marriage goes against any kind of sectarian regime. And these political people are deputies of a sectarian regime so it threatens their presence,” said Sukkarieh.
“The idea is about humanity. That we all live on this earth. Just because I do not want to mention my religion does not mean I am not a believer,” said Darwish.
Ogarit Younan, head of the Lebanese Association for Civil Rights who has presented a draft civil marriage law to parliament, said that “while the initiative of Nidal and Kholoud is truly courageous, it is not legally valid.”
“We have a big campaign to push this law. For the first time, it is on the list of items parliament will discuss and vote on, so civil society has a big role to play.”
“There are religious people and politicians with us. We have a real chance now,” said Younan.
The campaign has picked up momentum.
After announcing their marriage, Sukkarieh said activists came up with the idea of holding a public ceremony in the heart of the Lebanese capital to advocate for the law.
“They offered the dress, the suit, the hair,” she beamed.
Sukkarieh said that while she and Nidal would bring up their children according to their core values, “We are going to let them search and learn, and they are going to choose what they want.”