Al Jazeera World

Cyprus: Island of Forbidden Love

When love crosses the religious divide Cyprus becomes a favoured destination for Lebanese couples seeking a civil union.

The island of Cyprus, according to legend, is the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. So it seems fitting that it is the destination each year for hundreds of Lebanese couples to get married – because they cannot do so back home.

In Lebanon, neither Christian nor Muslim religious authorities will perform marriages between couples from different religions. So Cyprus – 200 km off the coast of Lebanon – is the closest venue for mixed-faith couples wanting to get a civil marriage.

In other Arab countries the sharia governs personal status laws which cover marriage.

In Lebanon, there are as many laws as there are sects, with 18 different laws on personal status for Lebanon’s 18 officially-recognised religious sects.

In 1936, a law known as LR60 – decreed by the then French high commissioner in the region – required all religious sects to submit their different systems of laws to the state for approval.

Lebanon requires a legal framework for personal status. Without it, there is no state. There are different laws for different Lebanese groups. It’s not the same law for all Lebanese people and foreign laws are unacceptable. This is wrong. All sects and citizens should correct this situation.

by Dr Ogarit Younan, a personal status law expert

Law LR60 has roused strong opposition from Lebanon’s Muslim sects, who felt the requirement of state approval was an interference by the state in their internal, religious affairs.

For Rabih and Varto Mosleh there was no other way except to marry in Cyprus despite opposition from family and their respective Christian and Druze religious sects.

“We decided to get a civil marriage. Neither my parents nor our sects accept this. But eventually I took this decision,” says Rabih.

He adds: “In the end, we all live together. Sunnis, Christians, Druze, Shia. We are all in it together. When you fall in love, nothing can stand in your way. That’s my story.”

Lebanon’s constitution – and its laws – have allowed the country’s different sects to establish and organise their own religious courts, and to formulate their own systems of family law.

Fares and Siham Choufani married at the municipality of Aradippou, 10 minutes from Larnaca. They are part of a growing phenomenon of Middle Eastern couples, irrespective of religious leanings, seeking a civil marriage in Cyprus.

Fares explains why: “Siham and I are from the same Christian sect but we chose to have a civil marriage for several reasons. Firstly, to stress our own freedom to choose the kind of relationship we wish to have.

“Secondly, Lebanon’s personal status laws do not reflect the equality between men and women. Thirdly, Lebanese laws are sectarian in character.”

The process for foreign nationals to legally marry in Cyprus is fairly straightforward.

In Lebanon – love most often stays within the intangible red lines of the religious community. A civil union is commonly frowned upon as a marriage of convenience; chosen by people who are either renegades from their religion or who wish to keep options open for a later divorce.

Why do Lebanese couples get married in Cyprus each year?