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Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application

There are roughly equivalent numbers of Sunni and Shia Muslims in Lebanon, who together make up just over 60 percent of the population. Lebanon has the highest percentage of Christian citizens in the Arab world. There are 18 officially registered religious communities. The biggest Christian group is the Maronite Church. There is also a Druze minority. The Alawite minority lives mainly in the northern city of Tripoli, and there is also a very small number of Jews.

As a result of the massive influx of displaced Syrians, the resident population is estimated to be as high as 5.9 million with perhaps one in five being a refugee.[1] Most of the latter are Sunni Muslims, but tens of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi Christians have also sought refuge in Lebanon. There are no exact figures since a substantial number of refugees are not registered with the United Nations.

About 450,000 Palestinians are registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).[2] They are almost entirely Sunni Muslims.

Lebanon is a parliamentary republic which has no official religion but is not formally a secular  state. The political system is denominational and reserves the highest political offices to the various communities according to well-defined criteria: the presidency of the republic falls to a Maronite Christian, the Presidency of the Council of Ministers to a Sunni Muslim and the Parliamentary speakership to a Shia. Religious communities are represented in Parliament according to fixed quotas.

Lebanon’s constitution provides for freedom of religion.[3] According to article seven, “all Lebanese are equal before the law.” Article nine states that “freedom of conscience is absolute”. It continues: “In assuming the obligations of glorifying God, the Most High, the state respects all religions and creeds and safeguards the freedom of exercising the religious rites under its protection, without disturbing the public order. It also guaran- tees the respect of the system of personal status and religious interests of the people, regardless of their different creeds.”

Article 10 says: “Education is free so long as it does not disturb the public order, does not violate the morals, and does not touch the dignity of any religion or creed. The rights of communities to establish their own private schools cannot be violated, provided that they comply with the general requirements laid down by the state with respect to public education.”

The Lebanese Penal Code punishes individuals who perform acts that are considered blasphemous to the name of God.[4] It also imposes criminal penalties on individuals who publicly insult the religious practices of any religion.[5]

Conversion from one religion to another is legal but converts can face strong social resistance. Missionary activities and proselytism are allowed.[6]

Matters of personal status private law (such as marriage, parentage, inheritance) are dealt with under the separate jurisdictions of each of the 18 religious communities recognised by the state (12 Christian, five Muslim and one Jewish). Each community possesses its own jurisdiction and manages its own welfare organisations and educational institutions. However, certain religious communities within Lebanon (Yezidis, Baha‘is, Buddhists and Jehovah’s Witnesses) are not legally recognised and therefore have no rights as institutional groups. Members of these groups  are nonetheless permitted to perform their religious rites freely. Members of non-recognised religious communities and those of no religion may contract a civil marriage abroad, after which their union is validated in Lebanon.[7] But, where this course is pursued, the law relating to their marriage and its effects are those of country where their civil marriage was celebrated. Despite attempts by some civil society and human rights groups,[8] civil marriages are not allowed in Lebanon, except for people who opt out of the religion-based family registry.[9]


Local bishops have warned that religious tensions have been exacerbated by the influx of refugees. Maronite Archbishop Simon Atallah from Deir Al Ahmar told Aid to the Church in Need that, in some cases, Muslims from Syria, especially Sunnis, have vandalised Christian symbols in acts that the Christian population considers blasphemous. The Archbishop said: “They defile crosses, statues of the Virgin Mary, and so on. Anti-Christian slogans have also been painted on walls. This leads to tensions in the region.”[10]

A further concern is the security problems caused by Sunni extremists from Syria who have found refuge among their co-religionists in Lebanon. Archbishop Attallah commented: “The Lebanese Shiites are in favour of the Syrian regime, but the Sunnis are on the side of Daesh […]. In the region where I work there are some Sunni villages such as Arsal and others. The Sunnis provide an inviting environment for Daesh. The members of Daesh can therefore penetrate into the region and find refuge among the Sunnis.”[11]

In October 2017 a group of independent Shias created a movement called “Lebanese first, Shia second” to oppose Hezbollah and counteract the predominant and expanding hegemony of the Iranian-backed party.[12]

In December 2017, during a historic trip to Saudi Arabia, following an official invitation by Saudi authorities, the Primate of the Maronite Church, Patriarch Bechara Rai, met with King Salman, Crown Prince bin Salman and Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri who was in Riyadh at the time. The Patriarch declared that “[Lebanon] must remain a meeting ground. It must avoid entering armed conflicts so that it can always play the role of an element of stability and peace”.[13] In this unprecedented visit, during which he was received with honours reserved for a Head of State, he also declared that “Hezbollah is one of the Lebanese Parties. It is the only party that has weapons, and this creates a problem. But we cannot call it a terrorist organisation”.[14]

Controversial land purchases by Shia businessmen, mostly affiliated with Hezbollah, worry certain communities, mainly the Christians and Druze. According to them, “this demographic ‘nibbling’ raises fear in communities that see ‘hidden agendas’ in the [behaviour of] others in [a country without] a clear social contract and a strong state.”[15] More generally, many believe that Iran is trying to create a Shia belt.

In February 2018 a crisis broke out over the funding of private schools, which cater for 66 percent of all school-age children in Lebanon.[16] The government had increased the pay scales for staff in both the private and the public sector, and the private schools said that they were unable to meet the demands of the new salaries. This crisis affects above all the network of Catholic schools, which are widely thought to be best in the country.[17] They represent 70 percent of the private school network and are open to all communities.[18] The crisis became an open conflict between two of the country’s leaders, namely the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri[19] and the leader of the predominantly Maronite Free Patriotic Movement,[20] Gebran Bassil. Patriarch Bechara Rai firmly condemned the row, declaring that “this is not the way to build a self-respecting state that wants to regain its central place in the Arab world”.[21] According to Patriarch Rai, the state was under an obligation to subsidise private schools: “private schools, like public schools, which are governed by the same laws, must be financed in the same way”.[22] Patriarch Rai pointed out that private schools provide a public service, and the new pay scale introduced by the government had weakened them to the point of endangering their existence. “It is up to the state to assume the consequences [of the increase in pay scales] and subsidise it”.[23] For some religious leaders, the salary increase amounts to a discriminatory measure against Catholic private schools.

After almost 10 years, parliamentary elections were finally held but with a low voter turnout. Despite the new voting law,[24] less than half of eligible voters cast their ballot, thus confirming that there is a “widespread distrust towards politicians, often considered as being all corrupt”.[25] Overall, the mostly Shia Hezbollah party gained support, consolidating Iran’s influence in the country. Together with its allies (principally the Amal movement), it gained a small majority in parliament.[26] The Hezbollah-Amal victory will most probably raise regional and inter confessional tensions.[27]

Prospects for freedom of religion

More than three years ago, Maronite Archbishop Simon Attallah expressed fears that the shift in the country’s demographic balance, resulting from the large number of Syrian refugees, would put the future of Lebanon’s Christians in doubt. His words are still valid. The former Maronite Archbishop of Baalbek-Deir Al Ahmar expressed his concerns during an interview with Aid to the Church in Need in March 2015. “We have two million Syrians in the country as refugees. Many will return to their homeland when the war is over. But many refugees will remain in the country and apply for Lebanese citizenship in 10 years. What will become of us Christians then?”[28] asked Archbishop Attallah. “Lebanon is marked by a very delicate religious composition. Those Syrians who will remain in the country are mostly Sunnis. And the religious balance will thus be destroyed. That is a problem for us.”[29] The prelate added that his remarks should not be misunderstood as showing a lack of solidarity with the refugees. “We show much solidarity. We want to act in solidarity. But we have obvious problems before our eyes. There is a question mark over our future.”[30]More recently, in an interview given to the Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour, Monsignor George Sabila, Syriac Orthodox Bishop of Mount Lebanon and Tripoli, declared that “Christians in the Middle East could disappear in a decade, even from Lebanon.”[31]

Broadly speaking, the country’s existing sectarian problems remain. The war in Syria and the recent tensions between Qatar and the other Gulf states have raised the pressure level in the country.

Endnotes / Sources

[1] “Syrians, Palestinians and Iraqi Refugees in Lebanon”, Journal of Pediatrics and Neonatal Care, Volume 8, Issue 1, 2018,, (accessed 12th June 2018).

[2] “Lebanon”, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refueges in the Near East (UNRW),, (accessed 12th June 2018).

[3] Lebanon’s Constitution of 1926 with Amendments through 2004,,, (accessed 12th June 2018).

[4] Law 340 of 1943, 1 March 1943, art. 273, World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO),, (accessed 4th June 2018).

[5] Ibid. art. 274.

[6] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, “Lebanon”, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, U.S. State Department,,  (accessed 12th June 2018).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Only one couple has managed to celebrate a civil marriage in Lebanon in 2013. “Civil marriage in Lebanon: the couple that divided the country”, France 24 English, 4th February 2013,, (accessed 1st June 2018).

[9] Dalal Mawad, “Lebanon civil marriage raises hope for change”, Al-Jazeera, 2nd May 2013,, (accessed 12th June 2018).

[10] Oliver Maksan, “What will become of us Christians?”,’ Aid to the Church in Need, 18th August 2015,, (accessed 24th May 2018).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Benjamin Barthe, “Au Liban, des personnalités chiites se dressent contre l’hégémonie du Hezbol-lah”, Le Monde, 1st November 2017, orient/article/2017/11/01/au-liban-des-personnalites-chiites-se-dressent-contre-l-hegemoniedu-hezbollah_5208588_3218.html, (accessed 28th May 2018).

[13] Gianni Valente, “Patriarch Béchara Raï: about my trip to Saudi Arabia”, La Stampa, 4th December 2017,, (accessed 4th June 2018).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Fady Noun, “L’école privée face à une crise existentielle”, L’Orient-Le Jour, 30th December 2017, existentielle.html, (accessed 23rd May 2018).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Louis Honeiné, “Crise récurrente de l’école privée au Liban”, Perspectives libanaises Penser  l’avenir, 27th March 2018, lecole-privee-au-liban/, (accessed 4th June 2018).

[18] Anne-Marie El-Hage, “Au Liban, l’école privée en crise aiguë depuis l’adoption de l’échelle des salaires’, L’Orient-Le Jour, 9 January 2018,, (accessed 23rd May 2018).

[19] Close to the Shia affiliated Amal movement.

[20] Courant patriotique libre.

[21] “Mgr Raï : Ce n’est pas comme cela que l’on bâtit un Etat qui se respecte”, L’Orient-Le Jour, 1st February 2018, comme-cela-que-lon-batitun-etat-qui-se-respecte.html, (accessed 23rd May 2018).

[22] Ibid.

[23] Fady Noun, op cit.

[24] Now, voters choose among lists with the possibility of casting an extra preferential vote for a specific candidate. This new law replaces a majoritarian system with a proportional one and for the first time, Lebanese expatriates were allowed to vote abroad. Roughly 82,000 have registered to do so. See. “Election fever hits Lebanon, nine years since last legislative vote”, The Jordanian Times, 19th April 2018, http:// nine-years-last-legislative-vote, (accessed 23rd May 2018).

[25] “The elections confirm the fragmentation of the political framework. The Lebanese PMS Director: no one will be able to govern alone”, Agenzia Fides, 7th May 2018, he_Lebanese_PMS_Director_no_one_will_be_able_to_govern_alone, (accessed 24th May  2018).

[26] Martin Chulov, “Hezbollah makes strong showing in Lebanon elections”, The Guardian, 7th May 2018, showing-lebanon-elections, (accessed 27th May 2018).

[27] Asma Ajroudi, “Hezbollah, Amal and allies biggest winners in Lebanon elections”, Al Jazeera, 8th May 2018, lebanon-election-sweep-180507160524402.html, (accessed 4th June 2018).

[28] Oliver Maksan, “What will become of us Christians? ”, Aid to the Church in Need, 18th August 2015,, (accessed 4th June 2018).

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Patricia Khoder, “Les chrétiens du Moyen-Orient pourraient disparaître dans une dizaine d’années, même du Liban”, L’Orient-Le Jour, 16th April 2018,, (accessed 4th June 2018).

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