Home Levant Come, marry and be civil

Come, marry and be civil

Couples flock to island for civil marriages unavailable in rest of region

by Executive Staff

Firas Yazbeck and Naomi Arends arrived to the municipality building in Larnaca, Cyprus on a Monday morning. In just a few minutes, the Lebanese-Dutch couple had filled out their marriage documents as they waited in the queue to take their vows. In the waiting room, a promotional video of Larnaca — and all the activities visitors can do in one day — played on a TV.

Like many Middle Eastern couples, including those from Lebanon, Yazbeck and his new bride chose to marry in Cyprus, and spend their 10-day honeymoon on the island as well. Marriage in Cyprus is simple, it’s easy, and it’s one way to get around Middle Eastern marriage laws that don’t allow people from different religions to marry.

“It’s so close to Lebanon,” notes Yazbeck, a 27-year-old Maronite Christian. “It’s a good place for a civil marriage and a vacation.”

Still, he hopes his home country will allow civil marriage, which he thinks would be good opportunity for reconciliation between Lebanon’s different religious communities.

That sticky sectarianism

As modern and western-leaning as Lebanon is, the country does not allow civil marriage. For years, activists have advocated for the introduction of civil marriage in the Middle East, particularly Lebanon.

Last February saw a number of small victories for advocates of civil marriage in the region. In Lebanon, Interior Minister Ziad Baroud signed an order allowing citizens to remove their religious affiliation from government papers. Around the same time, activists held an inter-faith group marriage on Valentine’s Day. On Facebook, members of various Lebanese pro-civil marriage groups total more than 20,000 — compared with 13 on the social networking site that is against it.

But major obstacles still remain before the Lebanese are willing to legalize civil marriage. The act is no easy feat in a nation where the legal foundation is based on sectarianism. In 1997, the late President Elias Hrawi suggested implementing civil marriage in Lebanon, but was met with opposition from both Muslim and Christian leaders. For now, Lebanese who do wish to have civil ceremonies can do so outside the country and then register their marriage in Lebanon, which the state then recognizes as a legal marriage.

It takes around a half hour to make the short flight to Cyprus from Beirut, marginally longer from Damascus, and marriage is big business. Ever since the British mandate in 1923, the small island has been performing civil marriage ceremonies for locals and foreigners alike. Until the 1980s, citizens of the United Kingdom comprised the majority of marriage tourists to Cyprus. But over the past 30 years, most of the couples getting married in Cyprus have come from the Middle East.

Eager to capitalize on the pre-existing demand for civil marriage services, over the past several years travel agencies, embassies and municipalities in Lebanon and Cyprus have been coordinating to offer couples tourism and marriage packages, including everything from plane tickets and hotel rooms, to marriage paperwork and ceremony arrangements.

Hrach Kalsahakian, sales and marketing manager at the Cyprus Tourism Organization, says the Cypriot wedding business sector is only growing.

According to the Cypriot embassy in Beirut, there were 400 Lebanese couples who wed in Cyprus in 2007, compared with 278 in 2000.

“This sector is expected to grow because more and more people are discovering this side of the island and, on the other hand, more professional and sophisticated companies are providing wedding services,” he says. “The growth however is gradual and not excessive.”

Could other countries in the region, seeing Cyprus’ success in the marriage and tourism business, try to emulate the island country’s example? Not likely, believes Kalsahakian. He says, “Civil marriage is generally allowed wherever the role of state and religion is separate. This is difficult to achieve in most Middle Eastern countries and it is not expected to become a reality in the near future.”

Marry away but celebrate at home

Marwa Rizk Jaber, CEO of Beirut-based travel agency U Travel Middle East, whose Cyprus package tours include five to 10 couples traveling to marry every year, doesn’t see any economic loss to Lebanon due to many of its citizens having to go to Cyprus to get married.

“If someone is planning to do a big wedding in Lebanon, he will do a civil marriage in Cyprus and then do a big wedding in Lebanon,” she said. “It would be good to allow it in Lebanon, for the simple reason  that Lebanon has always been an open country although it’s based on religious confessions.”

Rola Badran, a Shiite Muslim, and Rami Khattar, a Druze, got married in December 2008 in a civil ceremony in Paphos, Cyprus, because their different faiths meant they couldn’t have such a ceremony in their home country of Lebanon.

“Civil marriage should be legislated in Lebanon as soon as possible,” says Badran. “It’s a unique country where Muslims, Christians, Druze and a variety of religions live all together and share their social, economical and political affairs. Civil marriage will give freedom to the young citizens and even older ones to unite under one umbrella.”

Some people believe that lobbying by Lebanese citizens and civil society groups will put pressure on the country’s politicians to change some of the sectarian laws, including the legalization of civil marriage.

“The idea is to have enough citizens who will remove their religions from their ID cards. This creates enough citizens not registered with any courts,” says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. That way, he says, “the government doesn’t have a legal way to link people to religious communities. If you have 20,000 people, then there’s enough pressure on parliament. That’s one of the approaches to force the issue of civil marriage.”

Wedding packages to Cyprus:

There are a variety of wedding travel packages to Cyprus. Some include just the basics, while others handle every detail down to the champagne and the confetti.

  • U Travel, an agency based in Beirut, offers basic packages starting at $300 per person, depending on airfare and hotel category.
  • Nadia Travel in Beirut has a two-day package for $1,900 that includes transportation, hotel stay, marriage and document fees and administration.
  • The Beirut-based Aeolos offers packages for $1,800, which include transportation to Cyprus, hotel, all travel, marriage and visa fees.
  • Skarvelis Weddings in Cyprus offers some of the most comprehensive wedding packages. All include wedding documentation administration and a wedding coordinator, a decorated Mercedes, flowers, a wedding cake and champagne. The packages start at $1,200. Their most high-end package, for $5,400, includes 44 photos, Rolls Royce for the bride, white Mercedes for the groom, floral arrangements, hair and make-up for the bride and spa treatment. The packages all include a planning and coordination fee of $567 but not the town hall fees – these are an additional $400.

Alternatively, if couples do not want a package they can just pay the $600 planning and coordination fee and the $400 town hall fee and then choose additional extra items such as a cake, flowers, etc.

Support our fight for economic liberty &
the freedom of the entrepreneurial mind

Executive Staff


View all posts by

You may also like