In the 16th century, when the Catholic Church in Rome refused to grant King Henry VIII a divorce, he broke away from the church and created the Church of England, of which he made himself the leader. Today, centuries after King Henry’s rebellious act, a divorce is easy to obtain in Britain. It became even easier with the introduction of civil marriage, which does not require either party to change their religion or sect. The situation is very different in Lebanon. Christians who wish to be granted a divorce have to change their religious sect to do so.
Nada (not her real name) decided to leave her husband after six years of marriage. “My daughter was four years old and she was watching all our arguments and her father’s violence toward me and hearing us shout at each other...In the beginning, I thought it best to stay with my husband so that she does not grow up with separated parents. But now I am convinced that it is better for her to live with that than to grow up in an atmosphere of fear, hate, and violence.”
Although Nada provided all the evidence needed to prove that her husband is violent, she was not able to obtain a divorce or an annulment from the Catholic [Maronite] Church. This is why she went to the Syriac Church. “I changed my sect and obtained a divorce there. And when I met my current husband I married him in the Syriac Church.”
Catholic courts are prepared, in order to avoid “evil” (i.e. divorce), to claim that the marriage never took place in the first place and take away the legitimacy of the children. Nada is not the only one who has suffered from the Catholic Church’s “control” over the details of her life. Samar (not her real name) says, “After nine years of separation, I went to the office of the judge handling my case and I said to him, ‘I haven’t lived with my husband for nine years. He now has a lover, so what do I have to do to get a divorce?’”
He answered, “Close the door and I will tell you how to do it.” Samar was advised to convert to Islam in order to obtain a divorce , which she then did. After that, she moved closer to the Anglican Church and married an Anglican man after having changed her religion twice.
“The religious courts, particularly the Maronite ones, carry out divorce, revocation, and annulment procedures according to their own mood, own interests, and to their own benefit,” says Fadi (not his real name), who separated from his wife 13 years ago and is still not divorced. He adds, “Divorce in the Maronite court is a commodity, you have to pay for it, and the amount is usually no less than US$10,000...They cite the Bible and claim that divorce is not permissible in Christianity, but they also preach that Jesus gave us the freedom of choice and the freedom to act. So if Jesus is the one who gave me this freedom, why is the church taking it away from me in his name?”
Perhaps the law regulating marriage in Catholic sects, which was passed in 1991, can answer his question. The law emphasizes that the word “divorce” should not be used. Instead it discusses the “dissolution” of the marriage contract. “Dissolution can take place through death, revocation, and annulment. Abandonment acknowledges that the two spouses are living in separate places but the marriage contract, with all its ramifications, remains in place.” This means that even if abandonment took place 20 years ago or longer, the marriage contract remains in effect.
As for annulment, according to the law it “ends the marriage contract retroactively from the date it was agreed to and all the results of this marriage are considered void.” The law adds: “If there are children, then they are considered illegitimate.”
“Religion was founded for the service of humanity, not the other way around.” This means that the Catholic courts are prepared, in order to avoid “evil” (i.e. divorce), to claim that the marriage never took place in the first place and take away the legitimacy of the children. What is interesting is that Maronites and Catholics who ask for a divorce and obtain it are actually asking for an “annulment” because there is no such thing as divorce in the Catholic Church (see Box below).
However, the law is different for each sect. This is why it has become common for Maronites and Catholics to resort to other sects to obtain a divorce. For example, the Orthodox Church has less complicated and more flexible laws. “We are realistic,” says Ibrahim Saad, a Greek Orthodox judge. “If we find that there is no way toward reconciliation, we give the couple three years.” This “realism” is not enough for many who cannot wait three years. “Those who do not want to wait, change sects,” he says. He insists that the church grants an instant divorce “in the case of adultery or when the marriage is forced. We also do not force a woman to live with her husband if he is violent toward her.”
There are now whispers about “polygamy” amongst Christian society because people are changing their sect to obtain a divorce. Because there are many marriage laws in Lebanon , a person can marry in the Catholic Church, divorce in the Syriac Church, remarry in the Protestant Church, and divorce again, going through any sect that will have him or her. What is ironic, is that despite registering for a divorce and then a second marriage, such a person will remain married according to the registers of their original sect, because they changed sects before obtaining a divorce.
This is a problem for Christian society. The reason behind it, according to Judge Saad, “is the lack of understanding and agreement between the Christian sects. In order to increase the numbers in their own sect, they allow people to circumvent the law.”
A true believer does not fear optional civil marriage. Anyone who fights it is ignorant and is of little faith.But is it really the fault of the church which receives the person, or the one which tries to control his private life and curtail his personal freedom? As Bishop George Saliba says, “Religion  was founded for the service of humanity, not the other way around.”
In a study published in 2006, he concludes, “If a couple cannot be brought together in love and harmony, then is it just and wise for them to stay together and have an unbearable life? Divorce is an evil, but living in an atmosphere of resentment, hatred, misunderstanding, and inflexibility is also evil. In these exceptional cases perhaps it is better to choose the lesser evil, which is to break the marriage contract, i.e. divorce.”
With things as they are, is it not possible to resort to civil marriage as the best solution? Saad says that he is not against optional civil marriage because “it is the right of every human being to choose how he wants to get married. Why should we force the atheist to adopt our religion when he does not believe? Why are we kidding each other? The church does not have to bless this marriage, or interfere in it. A true believer does not fear optional civil marriage. Anyone who fights it is ignorant and is of little faith.”
Another solution would be to make civil marriage mandatory. This way a believer can get married in church, but can register his civil marriage with the government. His rights and freedoms will be protected from the control of religion and he would not have to circumvent the law.
By; Sabine Salameh