Posted: February 24, 2009.
A recent decree by the Lebanese government has allowed its citizens to remove their religious affiliation from the identity cards. The BBC’s Natalia Antelava, in Beirut, considers how the move will affect a divided country.
In a country that has lived through years of civil war, and that is still deeply divided along religious lines, many see this decision as a very symbolic, and a very important step towards much needed unity and national reconciliation.
Plenty of people in Lebanon still remember the days when the ID cards they carried served as potential death warrants.
During the civil war, which lasted through the 1970s and 1980s, different militias aligned with various religious groups would set up checkpoints and ask for the identity cards of those who tried to pass.
People would often be shot on the spot if their documents revealed the “wrong” sort of religious affiliation.
“These identity cards killed so many people,” says Samer Juidi, a 21-year-old business marketing student in Beirut.
“I want to be seen as Lebanese. Not Lebanese Christian, not Lebanese Muslim but just Lebanese,” he adds.
By comparison to Lebanon of his parents’ youth, the country where Samer lives today is much more stable and much less violent.
But religious affiliation still governs the life of every citizen here.
Lebanon’s entire society, and its political system, is divided along sectarian lines: a Sunni Muslim in Lebanon could become a prime minister but never a president because that position is reserved for Maronite Christians.
The speaker of the parliament can only be Shia Muslim. And when Lebanese citizens want to marry, divorce or adopt, or when they register a birth or a death, they have to refer to courts that are run by the religious sects to which they belong.
There is no such thing as a civil court here, and that is why human-rights groups say the government’s decision regarding the ID cards is a welcome - but purely symbolic - step.
“The entire Lebanese system will still be premised on one’s religious confession,” says Nadim Houry of the lobby group Human Rights Watch.
“So even if you chose to remove it from you documents, they will still know what it is, and they will keep roll of that confession otherwise they will not know how to marry you, how to divorce you.
“And that’s why symbolically this decision is important, but its also only cosmetic.”
Human and civil-rights groups here are campaigning for a unified civil code, under which representatives of all of the country’s religious groups will be treated equally.
But for Lebanon that kind of law still seems to be a long way away.