“I’ve been wanting to divorce for ages, but he won’t agree to it, so what am I to do; spend a fortune on a lawyer, spend half my life in court?” said Amandine*, a Maronite and mother of four who lives in Beirut.
In Lebanon, divorce for Christians, just like for the country’s Muslims, has its own set of rules and regulations.
Among the country’s eight different Christian sects (Maronites, Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox or Gregorian, Assyrian or Nestorian, and Protestants), Catholics, including Maronites, are the most numerous. Their divorce options however, are the most limited.
Whereas both the Orthodox and Protestant churches recognize divorce, for Catholics and Maronites, it is strictly prohibited. Marriages can only be annulled, and only under a restricted set of conditions.
A local divorce lawyer who wished to remain anonymous said that for starters, with Maronite and Catholic annulments, the cause for requesting the split must date from before the wedding. Valid reasons include incapacity of the partner to consummate the marriage or have children, abuse, irresponsible behavior, incest, and polygamy. All claims, however, must be backed with substantial proof.
For instance, a man requesting an annulment might try to prove that from the first day of the marriage, his wife took pills to prevent pregnancy, said the lawyer. “But legitimizing the split is extremely difficult, and has a success rate of about one in 10,000,” he said. “So most couples resort to the alternative, more complex and financially tolling strategy: changing sects.”
Amandine told NOW Lebanon that if her husband had given his consent for the divorce, she would have converted to a sect that is more lenient toward divorce a long time ago.
Formerly-Maronite Nadine feels she was somewhat lucky. “My ex-husband and I both wanted the divorce, so we both converted,” she said. The entire household became Syriac Orthodox, a frequent choice among those converting for the sake of divorce. “The Syriac Orthodox patriarch was very understanding, and it cost us about $7,000, although that was years ago, and the cost has probably risen,” said Nadine.
The cost included hiring a lawyer and paying the Syriac Church for the conversion and the divorce. Although there is no official price tag for a Christian divorce or annulment, some experts put the starting cost of going through with a divorce when one of the partners initially refuses at around $20,000, which includes lawyers and church fees.
“It’s an absolute mafia,” Nadine said. “Not all couples have it as easy, and for these religious figures, divorce has become their favorite new business. I’ve had friends who’ve fought in court to get their divorce or conversion for years.” The process is long, expensive and exhausting, and church officials ask questions that have nothing to do with the divorce itself, she said.
Given the cost and difficulty of securing a divorce or annulment from the Church, many Lebanese Christians seeking a separation convert to Islam instead of other Christian sects.
“My cousin Rita’s husband fell for another woman, but when she refused to give him the divorce, he managed to convert to Islam. He moved in with his new love, even though he was still married to Rita,” said Charbel.
“Technically speaking, having multiple wives is accepted under Sharia [law], as long as the husband caters to all of his wives’ needs equally,” said Islamic lawyer and women’s rights activist Ghada Ibrahim. “But this rule is almost impossible to apply anyway,” she added.
Because Rita’s husband converted to Islam, by default their 9-year-old daughter did too, and he was able to take custody of her.
Yet in successful Christian divorces and annulments, women are also at a disadvantage when it comes to custody, as is outlined in a recent Freedom House report. According to the report, Catholic mothers whose marriages have been annulled lose custody of their children once the child is weaned. The report also states that for the Armenian Orthodox, the child goes directly to the father, who can opt to give custody of the children to their paternal grandfather or a legal guardian of his choice rather than to their mother.
According to the divorce lawyer, Orthodox and Protestant mothers lose custody of their children when they are between seven and 15 years old, depending on the sex. “There is a baseline, but it can vary on a case-by-case basis,” he said, adding that if the marriage was performed abroad in a civil court, the child’s interests is usually the factor taken into consideration, and the mother typically has custody of her children until they turn 18.
“My best friend is still traumatized,” said Dalia of her formerly-Maronite friend who converted to Syriac Orthodox for a divorce. According to the terms of the divorce, the mother loses custody of her daughter when she turns seven. As the child grows older, Dalia said, the mother is dreading the day she will have to give her daughter to her ex. “She also told me the divorce cost the family its entire savings,” added Dalia.
Divorce is financially and emotionally tolling for everyone, but the complexities of Lebanon’s sectarian system make it even harder and, in any sect, usually leave the woman at a great disadvantage.
“I was baffled when I received my modified ukhraj ayd [the official identification document for Lebanese citizens] after the process,” said Nadine. “It included the fact that I was divorced, but there wasn’t a single mention of my children,” she said. “It is absolutely ridiculous.”
*The names of the people seeking divorce in the article have been changed to protect their privacy.