Gregoire Haddad must be the most controversial bishop in Lebanon. Even at 85, he remains a lightning rod, receiving frequent criticism due to his penchant for challenging societal norms. In the past, he has been labeled a heretic for questioning the Catholic Church and calling for reform. Indeed, so controversial were his actions that he was brought up for a papal trial at the Vatican, though, fortunately for Haddad, he was found innocent of heresy. When he went on trial, Haddad insisted that the Vatican use the same court room it had used to try Galileo in 1632 for arguing that the earth revolved around the sun, which gives a sense of how the “Red Bishop” likes to roll. For forty years, between the “Social Movement” and the “Civil Society Movement,” he fought sectarianism, advocating secularism and pushing for a state governed by civil laws and rights.
Given this past, it is perhaps not surprising that a month before Ziad Baroud issued a circular allowing Lebanese to strike their confession from their civil records, Haddad, from his bed in the Beit al-Soha nursing home and in the hopes of prodding others to do the same, sent a surrogate down to the Civil Register to remove Haddad’s religious affiliation. Speaking to NOW Lebanon, the iconoclastic bishop says if he can, so can you.
What message are you trying to send by striking out your religious affiliation from the records?
Gregoire Haddad: I’ve been fighting sectarianism since the 60s through my work in the Social Movement [Movement Social] and then through the Civil Society Movement where all aims were dedicated to cancelling sectarianism, whether in political parties, elections, NGOs or schools—and anything that supports this project, I’ll push for it. Talal Husseini is a key figure behind the initiative and when he approached me, I was more than ready.
How do you value the move?
Haddad: This move takes up a small part of what needs to be done, the country will not change in the blink of an eye, but it is a very important step. Change has to start at the foundation of our sectarian state, laws need to be changed, rights have to be amended and this all needs a lot of work and effort. But what is important about this step is its individuality. The aim is to put change in the mentality of the people, get them ready for the concept of change. For that purpose, there will have to be a set of campaigns to make people aware of the importance of a secular civil state with laws that will govern personal affairs.
Have you heard of the civil marriage ceremony that took place? What is your view of civil marriage?
Haddad: Such ceremonies are essential to marketing the idea; the people need awareness and this may be a useful way of doing it. Religious figures, Christians and Muslims alike, opposed the idea of civil marriage. However, the idea of a civil marriage is harder to apprehend among the Christians because in Islam, marriage is a form of civil contract. The Christian figures oppose it, fearing loss of power and money. The solution is to fight for it.
Have you been criticized for striking out your sect?
Haddad: Criticism is nothing new for me. Plus for me, these criticisms don’t get to me. What is important for me is that my conscience is clear. My Christian conscience finds its peace with secularism not in sectarianism. Because I’m a bishop and a believer, I am this way.
Some questions are being asked about how striking out one’s sect will affect one’s ability to work in civil service positions, given that such jobs are distributed by religion—are you expecting people to be in favor of the change?
Haddad: In the beginning there will certainly be a gap, and some might feel marginalized. But the aim is, with time, to reach full equality among all civilians, and the procedure needs to start somewhere. With the system prevailing, the first grade civil servants are divided among sects, but the aim is a secular state in the finale with no differentiation even between first and second grade civil servants.”
What do you think of Minister Baroud, and do you believe that President Sleiman will support such a program?
Haddad: Baroud is a good guy. We’ve met a couple of times in workshops about elections. It will take him some time before he is accepted by society and by the people he works with. I fear that the ministers around him will deter him from continuing with his plans, if his conflict with theirs. He will, at some point, feel obliged to let some of his plans go. As for President Sleiman, it seems like he’s distancing himself from political conflicts, and to further avoid repercussions, he might not call for these changes himself, but, for sure, he’ll be supporting it and pushing for changes from distance.
Which politicians do you think will support moves like striking one’s religion from the records?
Haddad: There are many I believe, but for sure it will get support from [Ministers of State] Nassib Lahoud and Youssef Takla.
What is your view on establishing a senate system? Will it free us from the current sectarian parliamentary system?
Haddad: Not at all. With a senate system purely divided among religions and sects, we will consolidate the sectarianism in the country. It is not the answer to our problem.
What would you like to say in the end?
Haddad: If one is a true Christian, he should be able to accept people as they are, and if people wish to exist in a certain manner, then no one should deter them from doing so, and it is the state’s duty to provide them with the right laws to support their way of living. In the end, if one wishes to cross out their religion, it does not mean that they have lost faith, and a man should be valued because he is man and not because of the belief he practices.