Beirut, 2 April 2015
From 23 March to 2 April, I have undertaken a visit to Lebanon in my capacity as United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. First of all, I am grateful that the Government has accepted my request to visit Lebanon under its standing invitation to all thematic Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council. I am also very much indebted to the Regional Office of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Beirut because of its kind logistical, organizational and intellectual support. Cordial thanks in particular to the interlocutors from Government agencies, a broad range of civil society organizations, academics, various religious dignitaries or community leaders, refugees and migrant workers, who have shared their experiences, assessments and visions. We had many lively, frank and open discussions in Beirut, Tripoli, Anjar and Zahle where I have learned a lot during those exchanges.
Today, I present my preliminary findings, i.e. some main observations to which I wish to draw your attention. This press statement is not to be confused with the final report. The official report will be presented to the 31st session of the Human Rights Council in March 2016. In preparation of the report, I will continue to engage and work in consultation with the Government and all relevant stakeholders to receive more information and clarification of these preliminary observations and impressions.
Some people have asked me: “why Lebanon?” While some neighbouring countries are haunted by massive violence with obvious sectarian dimensions, the situation between religious communities in Lebanon is by and large amicable. People largely practice religion freely and no religious persecution is taking place in this country. Lebanon has successfully managed to keep the society together, across religious boundaries and to build resilience against the virus of religious extremism. Indeed, the main purpose of my visit has been to better understand what facilitated these surprising accomplishments and which measures can be taken to further strengthen peaceful interreligious coexistence of people across the broad range of confessions.
In my capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, I do not merely deal with issues of religious persecution or coercion. Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief (to cite the full title of this human right) also covers restrictive implications, which societal structures may have on everyone’s free manifestation of religious beliefs and faith-related practices. Moreover, besides aggressive forms of discrimination on religious grounds, it also covers more subtle discriminatory structures, which are not always visible on the surface but require some analysis. The purpose of freedom of religion or belief is to create an inclusive society in which the existing and emerging religious diversity can unfold freely and without discrimination. Obviously, this is work in progress and there are challenges to be faced in all societies.
The legacy of religious diversity
Short overview of the religious landscape
The most striking feature of Lebanon is its tradition of religious pluralism, which makes the country unique, in particular in the Middle East but also beyond this region. Over centuries Lebanon has been home to various Christian and Muslim communities. Article 9 of the Constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the free exercise of all religious rites within the general framework of public order. To date, 18 confessions have been officially recognized by the State.
Christian denominations include Catholic, Orthodox, Oriental and Evangelical communities. The Catholics comprise Greek Catholics, Chaldeans, Armenian Catholics, Latins and in particular the Maronite Church, which has its worldwide centre in Lebanon. Among the various Orthodox Churches, Greek Orthodoxy is the by far most populous one. Lebanon is also home to Oriental Churches – Assyrians, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Copts –, all of which keep their distinct traditions. The majority of Evangelical Churches – Episcopals, Presbyterians, Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, various free churches and others – cooperate within the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community. Whereas some Christian communities have existed in Lebanon since the origins of Christianity, others entered the country in the 19th and 20th centuries. The wealth of Christian liturgies (including liturgical languages), ceremonies and canon law traditions constitutes a particular Lebanese legacy.
Muslims comprise Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites and Druze. Like in the case of Christianity, the Muslim population is internally more pluralistic than in any other country of the Middle East. Different schools of sharia – in particular Hanafi and Ja’afari – exist in parallel. Under the wide umbrella of Shia-Islam, followers of Twelver Shia, Ismaelis and Alawites represent distinct groups, maintaining their specificities in teaching and practice, while all of them regulate their personal status issues within the Ja’afari (= Twelver Shia) court system. The Druze combine traditional Islamic teachings with certain philosophical ideas and mystic practices. They furthermore entertain their own religious court system. There is also a small community of Jews residing in Lebanon, composed not much more than 100 people.
There are also unrecognized religious communities in Lebanon, among which are the Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. Recent waves of immigration have also brought Hindus and Buddhists to the country, most of whom make their living as migrant workers. Moreover, it cannot be overlooked that many Lebanese personally see themselves as agnostics or atheists and express quite critical views on religious issues. Some openly call themselves “non-believers”. Thus, the existing and emerging religious pluralisms in Lebanon obviously exceeds the officially recognized 18 confessions.
Broad appreciation of diversity
There seems to be broad agreement in the Lebanese society that the diversity of religions and beliefs deserves to be cherished, defended and further developed. I often heard that no religious community in Lebanon would wish to see the country turned into a mono-religious entity, let alone a religious State. Interlocutors from different religious backgrounds repeatedly emphasized that the existence of “other” religions gave them more breathing space within their own religions.
Mixed marriages between Christians and Muslims or between people from different Christian denominations or schools of Islam are a widespread phenomenon in Lebanon, resulting in religious pluralism in family lives. Unlike in most other Arab countries, Lebanese can change their religious orientation legally, not only from Christianity to Islam, but also from Islam to Christianity. Conversions also occur between different Christian denominations or (albeit rarely) between people coming different branches of Islam.
Violent clashes with sectarian overtones remain comparatively rare in Lebanon. However, I heard serious concerns that the mounting tensions between Sunnis and Shias could have spill-over effects on the coexistence between these two communities in Lebanon, too. Religious persecution is unknown in the country. This has been confirmed also by members of non-recognized communities, such as Baha’is or Jehovah’s Witnesses who, although voicing certain issues of stereotyping and discrimination, at the same time declared their appreciation that they can live in Lebanon in safety and in accordance with their religious convictions.
Living together in a religiously diverse society
The rise of religious extremism in the Middle East has sharpened the awareness that diversity cannot be just taken for granted and that much is currently at stake. When asking about the factors that keep the Lebanese society together across all religious and denominational boundaries, I received different answers that point to different significant dimensions of coexistence, all of which should be taken into account.
Interreligious communication and cooperation
One factor that is regularly mentioned in discussion on diversity is interreligious dialogue. Last week, I attended the “Rencontre spirituelle islamo-chretienne” held in College Notre-Dame de Jamhour, an interreligious celebration of St. Mary’s Annunciation where Christian and Muslim dignitaries symbolically proclaimed their mutual appreciation in view of common religious roots. The ceremony started by a Muslim cleric citing verses from the Qur’an in harmony with the ringing of Church bells. Young students from different religious backgrounds performed a dance through which they expressed their determination to work together against any violence committed in the name of religion.
When meeting with religious leaders from various communities, I heard many commitments to interreligious dialogue, with a purpose to foster a climate of conviviality and cooperation. Interreligious dialogue projects exist in different formats. Religious leaders have their regular summits, in which they inter alia discuss political issues of common concern. According to the Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue, cooperation between religious leaders will be further institutionalized. The ADYAN foundation promotes interreligious and intercultural communication in a number of Arab countries, including Lebanon, in order to discover common values and interests that foster the development of “inclusive citizenship”. Other dialogue projects aim at providing humanitarian assistance to people in need, including refugees for Syria and elsewhere. Maan is a civil society organization that brings clerics and lay-persons together. Some of them jointly support prison inmates in their spiritual and social needs. Through its cooperation in prisons they reach out to people who might become easy preys of religious radicalization due to their living conditions and lack of prospects.
Thus, interreligious dialogue projects pursue very different purposes, symbolic ones and more practical ones, such as speaking out in one voice and rejecting violence in the name of religion. In any case, interreligious encounters, when happening on a regular basis and on an equal footing of respect, can facilitate the development of sustainable trust across religious and denominational boundaries. Even in situations when relationships may become temporarily a bit tense, people can still communicate with each other in order to prevent serious misunderstandings. In order to broaden ownership in the religious cooperation, it is important to involve much more women, who continue to be heavily underrepresented in such projects, as well as the younger generation.
Another frequently mentioned factor is the everyday culture of living together, often without paying much, if any, attention to religious differences. Many young Lebanese grow up in religiously pluralistic families. When attending school, they may sit next to students from another confession, which may never become an issue. Professional cooperation and common economic interests can create bonds that cut across denominational lines. Moreover, many people live in residential areas where they may not know which religions their neighbours profess, and they may jointly enjoy cultural performances or sports events.
I was repeatedly told that resilience against extremism is something quite natural in Lebanon. Some interlocutors pointed to people’s determination not to let themselves intimidated by acts of terrorism or extremism and to defend their specific ways of life. In this context, someone invoked the Lebanese “joie de vivre” as a viable antidote to the grim apocalyptic messages of ISIS and other extremist groups.
Yet another enabling factor of keeping the country together is the common Lebanese citizenship. Lebanon defines itself as a “civil State” based on common citizenship rather than one particular religious creed. There is broad consensus that this civil structure deserves to be preserved and that much needs to be done to further develop it. This includes endeavours, currently still in an early phase, to come to terms with Lebanon’s recent history of violent conflict, culminating in the war from 1975 to 1990.
Civil society organizations, which are a vibrant reality in Lebanon, work for broadening the space in which people cooperate on political issues across diverse religious and denominational backgrounds. Obviously, the educational system plays a critical role in promoting “civic” principles, including human rights, on which the Lebanese Constitution is built.
Power sharing and “balancing”
In many discussions on the relationship between religious communities the term “balance” came up. Often in conjunction with the term “equilibrium”, which has a similar metaphorical connotation, the invocation of a workable “balance” seems to be quite indicative of the way in which Lebanese manage their religiously diverse society. Depending on the specific context, the word “balance” can carry different meaning: sharing power between different communities, in particular Christians, Sunnis and Shias; building trust on the basis of respect for each communities’ vital interest; respecting religious sensitivities by avoiding unnecessary provocations; being aware of particular challenges, not least demographic challenges that may pose a threat to the existing system of coexistence. Concerns about how to uphold the existing balance or equilibrium are also typically voiced in discussions about the recent influx of Syrian refugees.
Notions like “balance” or “equilibrium” seems to represent a pragmatic and at the same time somewhat cautious approach in handling diversity issues. On the one hand, respect for an inter-confessional balance signals openness for the vital interest of other communities and prevents monopolies of power. On the other hand, the invocation of a delicate balance or equilibrium may also freeze existing structures, out of fear that far-reaching changes of the status quo might jeopardize the legacy of interreligious coexisting in Lebanon.
Challenges to the development of interreligious coexistence
Uneasy aspects of religious pluralism
The appreciation of religious diversity, which generally prevails in Lebanon, does not always include all communities equally. Adherents to non-recognized denominations, e.g. Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, whilst by and large enjoying freedom to confess and practise their beliefs face problems when trying to build an infrastructure that would enable them to further solidify their community life. Some of them remain officially registered under one of the recognized faiths, which they actually do not confess any longer – a situation that may create feelings of unease or even self-betrayal. Agnostics and atheists expressed similarly ambiguous feelings. While appreciating the open atmosphere in Lebanon, in which people are generally free to voice criticism of religions, at the same time, they expressed a certain frustration that they are stuck within a closed system of recognized confessions, within which they have to remain in order not to lose career options and other societal opportunities. Members of religious groups, which more recently entered the country, for instance Buddhists, are more or less ignored of their existence in Lebanon.
Even within the system of recognized confessions, relations between communities are not always easy. For instance, complicated issues arising from mixed marriages (e.g. annulment, divorce, custody etc.) at times lead to rivalries between different Christian denominations. Moreover, some Evangelical Churches have been suspected by members of other Churches to engage in “proselytism”, an accusation that the Supreme Council of Evangelical Churches clearly rejects. I came across aggressive rhetoric with obvious anti-Semitic message between the lines. Religious leaders of the Alawites see themselves discriminated against within the current system. They cannot run their own religious courts, and their personal status issues are treated under the Ja’afari courts. Members of smaller communities sometimes feel excluded from interreligious dialogue projects and public ceremonies. Moreover, there is a very tangible anxiety within the society that demographic changes may in the long run undermine the existing equilibrium between Christians and Muslims, who – in spite of all internal diversity – are largely perceived as constituting the two major religious communities that shape the country.
I would like to underline that even those who expressed somewhat sceptical views on the relationships between the various religious communities in Lebanon still described the situation in rather positive terms, in particular when compared to other Middle Eastern countries.
Sensitive religious and historical issues
As mentioned above, the frequent invocation of the inter-confessional “balance” or “equilibrium” indicates a widespread willingness to take a rather cautious approach vis-à-vis various religious sensibilities. This cautious approach, which has many advantages, may also invite restrictive measures, including measures of prior censorship that seem strangely at odds with the generally prevailing spirit of open public discourse in Lebanon. Apparently, religious leaders are actively consulted in censorship issues concerning religious sensitivities.
Moreover, there seems to be much reluctance to tackle the recent Lebanese history of complicated violent conflicts in the war fought between 1975 and 1990. Although virtually everyone agrees that various political factors, not sectarian rivalries, caused the warfare, the fighting obviously had far-reaching spill-over effects on religious communities. Some politicians associated with denominational groups were actively involved in killings and perhaps even massacres, and painful memories still linger within all communities. Official school books and curricula currently do not cover this particularly traumatizing part of recent history. There is also no single unified textbook on history. Some interlocutors opined that interreligious coexistence in Lebanon is no less based on certain “taboos” than on open dialogue and that serious cross-denominational communication is often hampered by sensitive issues which people are anxious to avoid. This may also affect the profoundness and credibility of the widespread rhetorical invocation of conviviality.
In order to promote and solidify trustful relationships between communities, the Lebanese society will have to tackle complicated legacies of the recent history. Painful collective narratives, especially if told merely within closed circles and not being exposed to counter-narratives of other groups, can become the breeding ground for bitterness and a climate of mutual mistrust. Positively speaking, the development of more trust within society presupposes the possibility to talk about sensitive issues without fear that when scratching the surface the “ghosts of the past” would immediately erupt again. Certainly, coming to terms with traumatic collective experiences requires a long-term process, which can only succeed if based on broad participation and an honest attempt to face all the dire facts. Civil society organizations have started to pave the way for this to happen in Lebanon, the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) for example perform an important task that is in the service of common citizenship, while at the same time enhancing the quality of inter-group communication. Furthermore, I had a chance to hear the views of students from different public and private schools who had participated in the project on “Teaching Divided Histories” facilitated by the British Council and supported by the Ministry of Education. The commitment which I saw in posters presentation by school students within this initiative was quite heartwarming.
Societal factors of separation
Meaningful interaction across denominations naturally depends on the possibility for people to meet on a regular basis and without taking too many efforts. The preconditions for this to happen differ widely within the country. Whereas in some residential areas people from different religious backgrounds live closely together, other areas are mainly inhabited by followers of one particular religion. It appears that people from higher social strata generally have better chances to live in religiously mixed environments, including in their business trades, workplaces or employments. Thus, social and economic factors seem to have an enormous impact also on the quality of interreligious coexistence.
This is very much reflected also in the educational system. Here, the main divide runs between private and public education. While only 45 percent of schools in Lebanon are public, the percentage of enrolled students is even less than 30 percent of the entire student population, which accounts for the strong role that private school education plays in Lebanon. The majority of private schools are run by religious communities, in particular the Christian communities, generally enjoy a high reputation, but may also require quite substantial tuition fees. By contrast, public schools, although free of charge, are often less reputed. Many of them mainly cater to pupils from economically impoverished families.
Private schools frequently attract students from various religious communities, provided that they can afford the fees. Many Christian private schools have Muslim as well as Christian students, and there are quite a number of examples that even the majority of students educated in a particular Christian school are Muslims. This indicates and reinforces the general openness within the society and furthermore helps to promote sustainable relationships between students from diverse denominational backgrounds. By contrast, public schools in certain regions often have a mainly or even exclusively one-confessional student population, depending on the area. The educational system thus reinforces the effects of economic stratification, leaving some children from economically poor families deprived of good opportunities to develop a positive experience of religious diversity in their school education. Given the fact that the experiences during school education play a major role in shaping people’s mentalities, this is an area in which structural reforms are urgently needed.
Reportedly, some private schools enforce rather strict dress-code regulations, which mainly affect women and girls. Depending on the orientation of the respective schools, these rules can either prescribe or prohibit the wearing of the Islamic veil, possibly without paying due respect to personal expressions of religious identities. However, the situation differs from school to school, and a common pattern does not seem to exist. In this regard, the policies of public schools may generally be more accommodating, although much depends on decisions of local headmasters.
Even though women are involved in some interreligious dialogue projects, in particular those initiated by faith-based civil society organizations, they often remain sadly absent in more traditional settings. The regular invocation of interreligious “brotherhood” (a language hardly even questioned) thus inadvertently points the marginalization of women. Their underrepresentation in interreligious dialogue settings furthermore reflect their generally subordinate position in many (not all) religious communities where leadership roles largely continue to remain reserved to men.
Religious family laws and courts have become a publicly contested area, in which religious freedom issues and gender-related discrimination largely overlap (see also below, under V.). Depending on many complicated details, e.g. confessional registration of one or both spouses, women suffer in different degrees from discrimination concerning important issues, such as divorce, custody of children or inheritance. In denominationally mixed marriages, the confession of the husband usually counts as the criterion to decide under which legal regime the marriages falls.
The cautious “balancing” with the purpose of preserving the existing interreligious “equilibrium” manifests itself in various societal spheres, such as the labour market, the public service sector and in particular the political system. Although in the wake of the Taif Accord, the Lebanese Constitution includes a commitment towards overcoming political confessionalism, informal or formal religious quotas continue to shape expectations, mentalities and careers. People often express worries about the fact that the post of the President of the Republic, traditionally reserved to a Maronite, has been empty since May 2014.
In discussions on this issue, most people agreed that the existing system has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it creates stability and predictability between the religious communities, which in a rather volatile political climate in the Middle East can certainly count as an advantage. On the other hand, it may weaken common citizenship and reinforce political fragmentation.
The fact that social and political opportunities much depend on affiliation in one of the officially recognized religious communities can at times lead to situations that some interlocutors have bluntly described as “schizophrenic”. For instance, people who openly consider themselves as non-believers still have to refer to their religion of origin when applying for certain posts in society. Some members of non-recognized religious communities continue to be registered as Orthodox or Catholics. There are numerous examples of such gaps between formal membership and actual belief. As a result, quite a number of people receive incentives to pretend (at least in certain circumstances) to follow a religion that they have actually abandoned or replaced by another belief. While some people do not mind playing those games, others feel that this goes against principles of moral and religious authenticity.
From the perspective of freedom of religion or belief, this situation gives rise to concerns. The way in which religious membership is deeply interwoven with political, social and economic opportunities means that many people have to use religion as a “ticket” for getting access to certain services or posts. Individuals whose beliefs do not fit into this system, thus face a dilemma: they either have to use the religious “ticket” against their true convictions or risk forfeiting certain opportunities in the society. To say it with a grain of salt: they may have to choose between self-betrayal and self-marginalization. Disentangling political and societal opportunities from religious membership would, in accordance with the Taif Accord, would also be in the interest of freedom of religion or belief. It would help to create an open, inclusive society based on common citizenship, in which religious diversity can unfold openly, authentically and without discrimination.
The current wave of religious extremism in the Middle East, which threatens to wipe out all traces of religious diversity, may nourish anxieties that without informal or formal quotas an unabashed majority rule would prevail and possibly erode Lebanon’s legacy of religious coexistence. Such worries are certainly understandable. However, unqualified majority rule is not the only viable alternative to the current system of political confessionalism. Most contemporary democracies have complex institutional arrangements in place, in order to ensure that the fundamental rights and individuals and communities are guaranteed without discrimination. Replacing a quotas-based system of anchoring diversity by a more consistently implemented rights-based approach in promoting diversity may actually be a more promising way of preserving the specific Lebanese legacy in the long-run.
The debate on civil marriages
The role of religious laws and courts
While the Lebanese State is civil in nature, issues of personal status – marriage, divorce, custody of children, inheritance etc. – are dealt with in religious courts and based on religious laws. Various Christian denominations run their ecclesiastical courts that apply their respective versions of canon law. Similarly, Muslims use the sharia courts that operate under the auspices of the Hanafi school (for Sunnis) and the Ja’afari school (for the various communities of Shias). The Druze run their own courts. Religious diversity in Lebanon thus manifests itself also in a plurality of religious laws and courts. Those not fitting within the existing infrastructure of religious courts, or not wishing to fit in, can contract their marriages abroad and have them subsequently registered in Lebanon. Cyprus, which introduced civil marriage in the 1960s, offers a viable and affordable alternative used by many couples. Upon return to Lebanon, however, personal status affairs of Muslim couples (i.e. if both spouses are Muslims) are nonetheless treated under the respective sharia provisions.
Discontinuation civil marriage registrations
In recent years, the system of running personal status affairs has come under criticism. Women’s rights activists and NGOs like “Legal Agenda” have complained about gender-related discrimination which, albeit to different degrees, is structurally built into various versions of canon law and sharia law. Others feel embarrassed by having to go abroad in order to contract valid marriages. Moreover, even the option of marrying abroad cannot satisfactorily solve all complicated disputes on divorce, custody or inheritance, and for Muslim couples marrying abroad is no way to avoid being placed under sharia courts.
In the past years, a few couples have successfully claimed their right to register a civil marriage in Lebanon, i.e. a marriage outside of the system of religious laws. Although in the absence of a formally adopted Lebanese civil marriage law the legal basis of such registration remains contested, their civil marriages are considered valid. However, this practice has recently been discontinued since the Minister of the Interior refuses any further registration of civil marriages in Lebanon.
Calls for legal reforms
In many discussions, I sensed much openness for reforms in the area of marriage law, not least also among religious dignitaries and faithful members of various religious communities, Christians as well as Muslims. Indeed, the absence of a civil law options in Lebanon creates situations, which are problematic also from the perspective of freedom of religion or belief. For instance, Catholics who wish to find a way out of an unhappy marriage surprisingly often convert to Islam. Some may also convert to other Christian denominations, which have a more lenient regime concerning divorce. To be sure, the availability of a legal civil alternative would not solve the conflict that Catholic canon law applies a rather strict understanding of the indissolubility of marriage. However, at least people would not feel urged to turn to another religion without really believing in it. It is quite telling that some people after having formally converted to Islam wish to return to their previous religious community. What does “conversion” mean in such cases? While ultimately no one should arrogate themselves to make a judgment on the authenticity of another person’s conversion, the religious law regime on personal status issues does raise issues in this regard, because it mixes religious with legal motives. It should be mentioned that in exceptional cases conversions also occur between various branches of Islam, e.g. from Sunni to Shia Islam, in order to benefit from inheritance norms deemed more favourable for certain family configurations.
Those wishing to continue the existing system of religious personal status laws see it as an anchor of stability of religious pluralism. While sharing the underlying motive, I personally think that the availability of a civil marriage option for everyone in Lebanon would not necessarily weaken the legacy of religious diversity. The opposite may be true. At the end of the day, religion is a matter of conviction, which can best flourish in an atmosphere of freedom. The insight that there should be no coercion mingled with religious issues can be found in most religious traditions, and this insight also lies at the heart of the human right to freedom of religion or belief. However, coercion does not only exist in the shape of violent persecution; in more subtle forms, it also exists within the enforcement mechanisms of legal norms, through which very important issues such as marriage or custody of one’s children are regulated on the basis of an ascribed faith.
Broader regional dynamics
Violence committed in the name of religion
In the Middle East and beyond, we are currently witnessing acts of cruelty beyond imagination that affect millions of people. When describing these acts as “barbaric”, we seem to suggest that they belong to a totally different era, disconnected from our contemporary world. And yet, they are perpetrated by people living in the 21st century who precisely know how to make use of the most advanced communication technologies and how to cater to international media voyeurism. Abductions, killings, mass expulsions and displacements occur on a daily basis in Lebanon’s immediate neighbouring countries. Many of these atrocities are perpetrated in the name of God. Extremist and apocalyptic interpretation of religious messages can indeed become a factor of violent escalation, although at a closer look, it is clear that most of the root-causes underneath the conflicts in the Middle East are mainly political. These factors include endemic corruption; lack of good governance; loss of trust in the fair functioning of public institutions (even the judiciary); breakdown of meaningful inter-group communication; failures within the educational system; difficult historical legacies; increasing impoverishment of large strata within the population; proxy conflicts carried out in institutionally weak countries; a prevailing macho culture and many other issues.
The dramatic developments that we see unfolding in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other countries within the region, obviously have a far-reaching and direct impact on Lebanon. Many people with whom I could discuss this issue emphasized that what is at stake is no less than the survival of the nation, its unique legacy of religious pluralism and the culture of living together across religious and denominational boundaries.
The most salient impact that the current regional warfare has on Lebanon is the mass influx of refugees from Syria. According to estimates, between 1.2 and 1.5 million Syrians after fleeing the atrocities of the Syrian civil war, have recently taken refuge in a small country, which is already hosting hundreds of thousands of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. During the discussions on this issue, political concerns that the overwhelming majority of Sunnis among Syrian refugees might erode the confessional “equilibrium” in Lebanon were very tangible, and the Government seems anxious to discourage any further influx of refugees. Against this background, it may be all more surprising that the country so far has not seen major conflicts between Lebanese citizens and the Syrian refugee population.
The vast majority of Syrian refugees, while being registered through UNHCR, do not have a residence permit in Lebanon, which hinders their free movement. Many live in informal settlements under unbearable conditions, and hardly know how to survive the next winter. Approximately three quarters of the Syrian refugee children have difficulties in the realization of their right to education despite certain efforts on the part of the Government to ease their access to public schools.
Apart from UN agencies, local administrations, NGOs and religious communities provide certain humanitarian assistance. For instance, private religious schools have admitted refugee children, without requesting the usual tuition fees, a situation which heavily draws on their resources. Whereas some private religious schools concentrate on refugees from within their own religious communities, many religious schools accommodate refugee children from across the religious spectrum. Unfortunately, external subsidies are scarce and some foreign donors have recently reduced or even withdrawn their financial support. The international community has an obvious responsibility to do the utmost to overcome this deplorable situation.
Syrian refugees can and do use religious facilities that exist in their vicinity. There is no problem for them to visit a mosque and participate in prayers. However, when trying to bury their dead, they are faced with lack of land for graveyards, a problem for which no long-term solution is currently envisaged.
Little attention has so far been given to religious beliefs and practices that exist among the tens of thousands of migrant workers residing in Lebanon, many of whom come from African and Asian countries like Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. In particular those who serve in private households are hardly visible in the society and tend to be largely ignored. Lack of political and social support renders many of those people vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, women or girls in particular. Sometimes children of migrant workers have difficulties to enroll in public schools, and tuition fees for private education are hardly affordable. As a result, parents may be faced with the dilemma of either sending their children back to relatives in their home countries or forfeiting their chances of even a minimal school education.
Those migrant workers, who shared their experiences with me, did not see any problems in confessing and practising their religions. One interlocutor, who had spent some time in other Arab countries, confirmed that the standard of religious freedom is comparatively high in Lebanon, also for migrant workers. They can join existing religious communities or run their own churches, which may offer services in the languages of their origin. Some religious communities support school education of children of migrant workers by subsidizing tuition fees in religious private schools.
In the wake of work-related migration, Buddhism has become a largely overlooked reality in Lebanon. Although no statistics exist, the number of Buddhists residing in the country has been estimated to run into tens of thousands. According to information received, a Buddhist temple does not yet exist in Lebanon, although request for acquiring premises or land to build a temple has reportedly been submitted. Apparently, quite a number of Buddhists living in Lebanon have converted to Christianity, which is another largely ignored feature of the changing religious landscape in Lebanon.
In Lebanon, people are free to confess and practise various religions and beliefs in the way they see fit. Conversion in different directions is possible and indeed a reality – in stark contrast to most other Middle Eastern countries. People can also bear testimony to their faith and engage in missionary or “dawa” activities. Religious diversity is a visible and audible reality, as Churches and Mosques often stand in close vicinity and the ringing of bells at times blends with the Muslim prayer call. Some Lebanese openly declare themselves as agnostics or atheists and express critical views on religion in general, which is mostly appreciated as something quite natural in an open society.
Lebanon’s pluralistic heritage represents a counter-point to aggressive agendas of sectarian homogenization, which haunt some of its neighbouring countries. Over the centuries a culture of interreligious coexistence has emerged, which today helps to build resilience against extremist interpretations of religious traditions. Due to mixed marriages, many families comprise persons of different religious orientations. Many people live, learn and work together across confessional lines, a situation which quite naturally fosters the discovery of common interests.
In discussions on how to preserve and further develop religious diversity in the face of external threats and internal challenges I have experienced a surprising readiness for reforms. At least it may seem “surprising” against stereotypical expectations that religious leaders and faithful community members would likely defend the religious-political status quo, whilst demands for reforms would usually remain left to “secular”-minded persons who do not much care about religion. However, I have come across much awareness also among religious leaders and community members that the current system, in which religious membership and societal or political opportunities are interwoven in complex ways, leads to situations that can undermine the credibility of religious messages and norms. Disentangling the tightly knit web of religious loyalties, political affiliations, social positions and societal opportunities may thus enhance the prospects of common citizenship while at the same time ensuring that the inner attractiveness and persuasiveness of religious messages can unfold without getting mixed with non-religious incentives. Similarly, I have sensed much willingness to introduce optional civil marriage in Lebanon, in order to accommodate the realities of modern life in a more honest and open manner. Also in discussions with religious leaders and dignitaries I rarely came across a whole-hearted and clear defense of the status quo. Fears that the option of contracting civil marriages in Lebanon would erode the existing religious diversity would indeed betray a lack of confidence in the inner persuasiveness of religious traditions.
In order to preserve and further develop the Lebanese legacy of religious diversity in an increasingly complicated region, religious communities and civil society organizations will have to cooperate more closely to build trust based on a common commitment to human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief. I am grateful for having seen promising initiatives pointing in this direction.