Lebanese courts have been witnessing a new phenomenon lately: a number of citizens submitting requests to reinstate their sectarian affiliation on their IDs, after they had requested it be removed. Based on a circular issued on February 6, 2009, the removal of any reference to religion on civil registry records was made possible by then Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud. These citizens had justified their desire to not make their sectarian affiliation public in the hopes of building a civil society free from sectarianism and doctrines. However, they later faced obstacles and difficulties related to their daily lives, particularly marriage, inheritance, and government jobs. This has led many of them to reconsider their decision to remove their denomination from their ID cards, and to request re-entry thereof. Such requests have taken on a judicial nature contrary to their request for removal, which was processed administratively. Given the importance of this issue, The Legal Agenda has obtained copies of a number of court decisions which will be analyzed in this article, noting that many requests are still pending before the courts.
A Summary of Cases of Confession Re-Entry
Contacting Beirut and Jdaydeh courts, The Legal Agenda found that three requests were submitted to the Beirut court and four requests to the Jdaydeh court during 2016 and 2017. We also obtained two decisions from Beirut [issued after 2014] and four from Jdaydeh, which is the total number of decisions issued since 2012 in these courts.
Studying these decisions, The Legal Agenda made the following observations.
In the six cases, the petitioners [from both sexes] presented two main documents; one proved their sectarian affiliation, and the other proved that high religious authorities in their sect accepted their return. These two documents are the family register statement and a document issued by the respective religious authority (archdiocese, patriarchate, al-Jafari Fatwa House, and Dar al-Fatwa in Lebanon). In addition to these papers, some petitioners presented other documents; namely, the application under which denomination had been crossed out, a birth certificate, a baptism certificate, or a family register statement. What stood out in one case was that the applicant presented their judicial record as if they had to prove their good conduct in order to be able to return to their sect; and
Some decisions only contained information on the reasons that led these citizens to remove their denomination reference or request re-entry thereof. This sheds a light on the legal and political obstacles against freedom from sectarianism.
Some of the most important pieces of information these decisions contained in this regard was a statement by a requester of re-entry. The petitioner said that they faced difficulties in their daily life as a Lebanese citizen, including procedural problems and obstacles related to administrative recruitment and inheritance. The ruling also quoted the requester of re-entry as saying that, “the step to remove the sectarian entry [is still] incomplete in many respects and has a significant impact on the person who took it”. The petitioner added that, “despite the multiplicity of sects and denominations, citizens holding on to their Lebanese identity, patriotism, and respect for all sects and creeds (remains) a moral duty”.
In another case, one of the applicants stated that they wanted to remove the denomination record because they wanted “to hold a civil marriage ceremony in Lebanon”, and that it was no longer justified after the Ministry of Interior refused to register such contracts.
Thus, what made these citizens return to their communities was not because they chose to, but because of the legal impediments they encountered that deprived them of certain rights as a result of the removal of their denomination. The forced return to the sects takes all its dimensions when compared with the free choice to leave these sects so as to achieve a certain understanding of citizenship.
Some decisions contained an explicit reference to the position of the Directorate General of Personal Status (DGPS) which did not object to answering the petitioner.
In their adjudication, the judges who decided on these requests relied on the same legal grounds for accepting the application in all six of them. After verifying the petitioner’s affiliation to the denomination requested for re-entry by verifying their former religious affiliation and their family’s current one, the judges concluded that the current record of the petitioner which does not mention their religion does not reflect the reality that they embrace that religion”.
Striking out the Sect Field: a Mistake That Should Be Judicially Corrected
It should be noted that citizens who submitted the requests had to resort to courts for re-entry of confession, whereas when they requested it be removed they submitted their application to the Department of Personal status, based on Baroud’s circular. To understand the significance of this, it must be pointed out that correcting personal records requires a court only for unalterable conditions. Otherwise, corrections should be made by the personal status departments without the need for a court ruling, in accordance with Article 21 of Decree 8837 dated January 1, 1932. This means two things:
Baroud considered in his circular that the request to delist religion constitutes a correction of the personal record on an alterable state; thus, it is intended to change that state. This is confirmed by the foundations on which the circular is based, most importantly the freedom of belief; and, particularly the freedom not to embrace any religion or denomination, as well as the freedom to keep one’s decision not to embrace a religion or sect from being public. In other words, according to this circular, tying an individual to a sect no longer becomes inevitable as long as that individual has the right to declare at any time their unwillingness to be a member of that religious sect, or their desire to not declare that affiliation.
The judges who issued these rulings considered that the request for re-entry is not intended to change the petitioner’s status. Rather, it is to re-reconcile the record to its original state, which was deemed not to have changed despite the write-off. Thus, the judges tended to deal with the cross-out, not as a voluntary process made by a person but as a “mistake” that person returned to request correcting. This presumed mistake is not only related to the person requesting it, but also to the DGPS which seems to have been lenient about this issue by approving the request in the first place. Framing it in this manner suggests that the Lebanese are bound to belong to a sect and to register their affiliation to that sect. If that religious affiliation is removed for some reason, that does not mean that they no longer belong to that religion; it only means that there has been a mistake to be rectified sooner or later. A similar reading constitutes a flagrant violation of the principle of freedom of belief, and of Decision No. 60 L/R which expressly allows any Lebanese citizen to not belong to any religion; thus, categorically negating the inevitability of sectarian affiliation.
The Wings of Change and the Prevailing System
The basic idea of the campaign to cross out the reference to one’s religious sect is to place pressure on the state. Such pressure is intended to get the state to carry out its duty to establish a civil code that regulates the affairs of those who do not belong to any sect, in accordance with the provisions of Decision No. 60 L/R. The campaign's organizers saw that the positive reaction by a large number of citizens towards the campaign’s call for crossing out religion was enough to actualize this pressure. The campaign later succeeded in registering the first civil marriage on Lebanese territory adding further pressure, especially after dozens held such marriages.
On the other hand, the aforementioned provisions show that the legal and factual system which still binds the enjoyment of a large number of rights to sectarian affiliation would weaken these efforts and render them futile. Apart from the fact that this system has discouraged many citizens from crossing out their sectarian affiliation, it is now obligating some citizens who already did so to return to their sects. Such return is costly as those concerned have to beg their sects for their return, then they have to resort to the judiciary. Many of those who had a civil marriage in Lebanon were forced to enter into a religious marriage in the state, or another civil marriage outside Lebanon after the DGPS refused to register their first marriage.
Given these difficulties, the number of applicants for re-entry remains limited. Their percentage may not exceed those who decide to withdraw from any difficult and tough battle. It is hoped that the wings of change would triumph over the prevailing system.
 “1. Acceptance of non-declaring of religion and acceptance of confession removal applications from civil status records. Registration clerks shall accept requests submitted by citizens to remove any reference to religious affiliation without additional paperwork; 2. In the case of non-declaration or request for removal, a slash sign (/) will be inserted in lieu of a person’s religion”.
 See: Ilham Barjas’s, “Al-Azwaj Ghayr al-Moʿtaraf Bihim Yaljaʾoon Ilal Qadaʾ…Wa Illa Ila Qubros: Tamassok Bilmowatana Yoʿakkiroho Hajis al-Wiladat”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 35, dated January 2016.