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April 24, 2010

Demonstrators Call for Secular State in Lebanon

More than 2,000 people have marched through the streets of downtown Beirut calling for a secular state.

It started on the social-networking site Facebook, a call to arms by people who believe church and state should not be one. After the online movement grew, Laique Pride organizers decided to take that spirit off-line, staging a rally through downtown Beirut to the Lebanese Parliament.

While the Laique Pride movement stops short of calling for specific demands, they want to move away from a state based on religion, says Yelda Yones, one of the organizers. She says the tradition of Lebanese apathy must stop.

"It is up to us to do something if we want it to change," she said. "To stop nagging about the system not functioning and start doing something about it and stay positive and united."

Lebanon is home to 18 religious sects and is deeply divided along sectarian lines, with Parliament seats allocated by religious affiliation and its president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim.

In Lebanon, only religious authorities can perform marriages, register births and deaths, and rule on matters of inheritance, so the rights of citizens vary by religious group and are not uniform.

Another rally organizer, Said Chaitou says reforming the state to become more secular will not infringe on peoples' personal religious beliefs.

"Lebanese people should understand what is secularism and do not be afraid of it," he said. "It is not against religion, it is not against them practicing. Secularism will bring equality between all the Lebanese people."

No politicians attended the rally, although some have called for civil marriage rights in Lebanon. Demonstrator Munther Yehya says the existing system benefits politicians.

"It is against their political interest, which here translates into their economic and financial interests," said Yehya.

While dozens of parents rolling strollers came out for the cause, in addition to politicians, the rally also lacked support from the older generations.

Rima Maroun says gathering attention from a wider demographic will take time.

"We know that all of the big manifestations that happened in the world were launched by the young generation, so we hope that this thing can drag the older people and motivate them to come because they are tired of doing," said Maroun. "If we do not have the energy to do these kinds of things, nothing can ever change."

Organizers say their next step is to launch an online forum that will be open to the public to exchange ideas about how best to achieve secular reforms. They also say they plan to hold the rally again next year.