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How interfaith marriage can be a mixed blessing

For couples of different religions, the prospect of a married life free of complications from society, their families and officialdom appears slim. Marie Dhumières talks to Syrian couples who are finding that wedlock can be anything but harmonious.

It's nine o'clock on a summer evening in the old city of Damascus. Michel and Leila are sitting in the courtyard of a house they share with other young Syrians. I ask them how they met.

"We were at a party by the seaside," remembers Leila.

"I asked her for a dance," explains Michel, "and I haven't been able to get her off my back ever since," he adds. That was four years ago. Michel and Leila now want to get married. The problem is, they can't. Michel is Christian, Leila is Muslim, and in Syria it is illegal for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim.

Although Syria is considered to be one of only a few secular Arab countries, the principal source of legislation for personal affairs is Sharia law, which defines marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man as invalid. This applies in all Muslim countries that adopt Sharia law.

"This is a red line and it's not acceptable to cross it. It has huge implications," says Michel, a 28-year-old translator.

There is no civil marriage in Syria and the only legal way they could marry would be for Michel to convert to Islam. But he doesn't want to, first, because he is not religious and second, because converting would have irreversible social consequences. "I would be rejected by my family and my community. Basically by 90 per cent of the people I know," he says.

Leila, a 25-year-old nurse who is a Sunni-Muslim - the main branch of Islam that makes up 74 per cent of the Syrian population - says her close family is very open-minded. "My parents have absolutely no problem," she says, but the rest of her family is conservative.

As Michel puts it, the worst case scenario for him would be being cast out by his family. But for Leila the consequences could be much more serious. "If one of her relatives decides to kill her to defend the honour of her family, what can I do?" he asks.

Leila and Michel have decided to travel abroad and are now applying for a visa to live in Canada. Michel says he would rather stay in Syria if the law were different. "Most people dream about going abroad. But I have a very decent job here, I like what I do, the same goes for Leila. We'd have a great future here. But we have to make a choice."

As Michel steps away to take a phone call, Leila confesses that the law is not the only issue here. "He doesn't like to speak about it, but his family totally rejects me, whether we travel or not."

A survey published in 2008 by the Syrian newspaper Al Nour found that, from more than 500 university students interviewed, 64 per cent were in favour of the legalisation of civil marriage. However, 40 per cent said they would prefer to sever relations with anyone who married outside their faith.

Indeed, leaving aside the issue of the law and even if the different religious groups mainly live in harmony, getting married outside the community is still predominantly not accepted in Syrian society.

Bassam, who is 31 and a Catholic bachelor and an Arabic teacher, tells me that if his sister had married a Muslim man, he would have killed her. "Seriously?" I ask. He hesitates. "No, I wouldn't have killed her. But I would have never spoken to her again."

"It's not about religion," says Bassam, who goes to church only on the main Christian holidays. "It's about culture. We are a minority in Syria. If Christians start marrying Muslims, we are going to disappear." In Syria, Christians make up just ten per cent of the population.

Even if Syrian law doesn't forbid marriage between Christian women and non-Christian men, it doesn't make things any easier. Lina, a 46-year-old Catholic from Damascus, knew from the start of meeting Farid that religion would be a problem. "I knew that when we told our parents, they wouldn't accept." She then smiles and adds: "But Farid didn't care, he was ready to do whatever it would take to marry me."

What made things even more complicated in their case was that Farid was Druze, an Islamic sect that accounts for three per cent of the Syrian population and firmly opposes marriage outside the community. As with many other religious groups in the country, the Druze have their own tribunals dealing with matters of marriage and divorce. In order to marry Lina, Farid had to convert to Sunni Islam, as no Druze court would have accepted him marrying a non-Druze.

Fortunately for Farid, even though his father is a religious man, his family accepted their marriage after a brief period of time. Things didn't go as smoothly on Lina's side however. She first tried to convince her father and told him all about Farid; how nice he was, how clever he was, how much in love they were and how she couldn't live without him. But her father couldn't accept the idea. "It was obviously because he wasn't Christian. My dad was quite an open-minded person," she says, "but when it comes to your own daughter, it's difficult."

One week after speaking to her father, Lina left the house without saying anything. "It was so difficult for me," she says. "I spent the entire day crying." Farid called her father the same day. "He told him: 'I'm sorry, but Lina and I got married. We didn't want to have to do this without your consent but there is no other solution'. Her father didn't say a word, she remembers, except when Farid told him that Lina would call him the next day. "He said: 'No, tell her not to call me'."

Lina says the lack of contact with her parents was hard, but that she knew they would eventually accept her marriage. Indeed, after a year or so, they did. "But there are still people in my family who refuse to talk to me, even after 11 years of marriage," says Lina, who now lives in Canada with her husband and their son.

Michel is very aware of the social implications of his decision, not only for him, but also for his whole family. He says his parents used his 24-year-old sister to try to dissuade him from marrying Leila. "She is at the right age to get engaged and they say my marriage would affect her chances in life." Basically, no one would consider marrying her because her brother married a Muslim. "This is true," acknowledges Michel.

When George, a 32-year- old Orthodox-Christian from Damascus, met Rima, a Sunni Muslim, at university 12 years ago, he couldn't have cared less about social implications. "It was love at first sight," he says, smiling as he remembers. "She was the one." But he was young and not thinking much about the future. After a year, when things started getting serious between them, he got scared. "Her family wasn't religious and neither was mine. But in Syria when it comes to marriage, it's not about religion, it's about community."

He decided to break up with her. "I thought it would be easier now than later," he says.

He regretted his decision, and two years later tried to get back together with her, without success. Four years after that, she was the one who came back to him. "This time we were older," he says, "everything was easier, everything was perfect." But after two years of being together, they started to talk seriously about their future. "I told her we could go to another country and get married there," he says.

But, unlike Lebanon, where civil marriage is not practised but is recognised, and where many mixed couples marry abroad and then register the marriage at home - Syria doesn't recognise civil marriage at all. Until they have a new nationality, spouses of different faiths are not legally married in Syria. As Michel says: "Leila and I cannot even think of coming back to live here unless we have Canadian nationalities."

Travelling abroad wasn't an option for George's girlfriend, Rima, as her father had just died and she didn't want to leave her family. Added to which, her family wouldn't have accepted her marrying a Christian. She asked him to convert to Islam instead. "Her mother liked me," explains George, "she wanted me to marry her daughter. But she wanted me to become a Muslim first."

George says he wouldn't have minded converting. But he didn't. "For my family," he says. "They would have had such a bad time; everyone would have been talking about them." He pauses. "They didn't deserve that."

So he wouldn't convert to Islam for his family, she wouldn't marry a Christian for hers. The future didn't seem very bright but this time they didn't break up. "We couldn't imagine not being together," he says. "But it was hard, especially for her, being 26 at the time, seeing her friends getting married and having children."

After a while George, an interior designer, was offered a job abroad. He decided to take it and to save some money in case Rima ended up accepting the idea of travelling and marrying outside Syria.

But when he came back for holiday eight months later, she told him she couldn't continue the way they were and asked him to promise that he would eventually marry her, meaning convert to Islam, or just let her go. "She knew I couldn't promise that," he says.

That was four years ago. George recently came back to Damascus for good. "I went for coffee with her once," he says, "she seemed to be OK."

I ask him how he feels about her now. He stays silent for a few seconds. "I got used to it," he finally answers. "I don't feel fine, it still hurts," he laughs sadly. "There is a part of me that will always suffer from that, but it's done, there was no other way, that's how our society is."

Khadijah, a 45-year-old doctor, chose another way, but not an easy one. When she met Basel 20 years ago, she didn't know he was Catholic. "I don't ask people about their religion," she says, before adding with a laugh: "I don't know why but he thought I was Christian." She isn't. Khadijah is Alawite, a minority sect of Islam and also the same religion as the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

Despite the strong opposition of Basel's family and especially his mother, the couple decided to get married abroad five years after they met. But his father fell ill and passed away, and then so did one of his sisters. The timing was never right. "We would say: 'Not this year, maybe the next one, and then the year after', and so forth... now 20 years have passed by," she explains.

"Here, you can't live with someone without being married," she adds. So for 20 years they've been seeing each other every day, working in the same building but living in separate houses. "He's my boyfriend," she laughs.

Things have not always been easy. "I thought about leaving him, I tried. But we'd always end up getting back together." She says that even if it isn't the life she wanted, she doesn't regret anything. "Of course, I wanted a household, stability, and so on, but that's just the way things are."

For years, Khadijah and Basel never thought about leaving Syria. "Our work is here, our friends are here. What would we do somewhere else?" Basel would say.

To this day, Basel's mother keeps trying to convince him to leave Khadijah. But they have finally decided to get married abroad, hoping for a normal life in Syria after that and to try to have children.

Khadijah says they could rent a house together if they were to marry abroad and that the state would register their children as theirs if they could provide a civil marriage certificate from another country.

Bashar, a 48-year-old Christian from Aleppo, managed to find a way around the problem. Because he has both Syrian and Lebanese nationalities, he was able to marry his Syrian Muslim wife in Lebanon where, unlike in Syria, Muslims are allowed to convert to Christianity.

They got married in a church and as the spouse of a Lebanese national, she was granted Lebanese nationality after 10 years of marriage. Although he actually married a Syrian Muslim, Bashar was then able to officially register his marriage with his "Lebanese Christian" wife in Syria.

But again, working around the law doesn't solve everything. While Bashar's family accepted the marriage his wife's did not. "After 17 years of marriage, her mother still refuses to talk to me, just because I'm a Christian. She doesn't even say hello," he says. His children, though, go and visit their grandmother regularly. "I want them to know that part of their family is Muslim," says Bashar, "and I don't want them to grow up thinking that one religion is better than another."

Lina and Farid decided to move to Canada a few years after their son was born. While his mother is Christian and his father Druze, their son Marcel - named by his father after the Christian Lebanese singer Marcel Khalife - is officially a Sunni in Syria, as he must take the religion of his father in that country. Lina says this is one of the reasons they decided to move out of the country. "In Syria, he has to be a Muslim, he has no choice."

Lina, a practising Christian, decided to baptise her son in Canada. She says that while her husband is not religious at all, it was important for her. "But he doesn't have to be a Christian," she adds, "he can choose whatever religion he wants when he grows up."

There is a long way to go before Michel and Leila start thinking about having children but they say they will not insist on a religious upbringing for them. "I won't raise my children in a religious way," says Leila. "But I'll tell them about my story and I'll teach them to deal with people for who they are and not for what religion they are."

 

All the names in this article have been changed at the request of the people featured.

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