LEGAL REPORT

Discrimination Against Atheists in Lebanon

 

 

 

Authors: Marc Bou Fadel, Khaled Merheb, Mazen Abou Hamdan, Sami Abdallah

 

© 2021 Freethought Lebanon

 

 

Abstract:

In the period extending from 2018 to 2020, there were over 16 reported cases of individuals prosecuted for blasphemy or provoking confessional strife. By showcasing the paradoxes and oddities of the Lebanese law and constitution, this work shows how Lebanese atheists are subject to different forms of discrimination and exclusion by this law. In particular, the absurdity and non-applicability of different articles of the Lebanese Penal Code was reported, as well as how this was used as a tool to censor atheists who dared expressing their views.

 

 



TABLE OF CONTENTS

1.. Introduction.... 1

2.. Overview: Sectarianism in Lebanon.... 2

3.. Freedom of Religion.... 3

3.1. Religious Freedom and the Lebanese Constitution... 3

3.2. Official Recognition of Religious Groups.. 4

3.3. Religion and Personal Status Matters.. 5

3.4. Women’s Rights Found Wanting... 5

3.5. Civil Marriage: Absence, Rejection, and Complications.. 6

4.. Freedom of Expression.... 7

4.1. Freedom and Restrictions.. 7

4.2. Vagueness on Online Speech... 8

4.3. Penal Code: The Four Horsemen... 8

4.4. Engines of Progress.. 9

5.. Cases of violations.. 9

5.1. Summary... 9

5.2. Highlighted Cases.. 10

6.. Legal Analysis.. 11

6.1. Inapplicability of Articles.. 11

6.2. Absurdity of Articles.. 12

7.. Recommendations.. 13

Acknowledgments.. 15

Bibliography... 16

 


1.   Introduction

Since its inception, the Lebanese Republic has adopted an inherently discriminatory sectarian-based system that sidelined non-members of the recognized religious sects in the country, including atheists. A balance of power between religious groups has been established at the State level in collaboration with religious authorities, whose clerical courts are given free reign over personal status matters.

Religious authorities, in their alliance with the State, have successfully maintained their monopoly over personal and individual issues such as marriage, inheritance, divorce, and custody – obstructing all attempts to recognize civil marriages conducted over Lebanese territories and willfully discriminating against women with no serious repercussions despite civil uproar and frequently recurring protests. 

The State-Religion complex has successfully silenced speech against its authority through penal code articles 317, 473, 474, and 475, in addition to deliberate misuse of vague laws. Any such criticism is faced with meticulously orchestrated and coordinated legal procedures, threats, physical aggression, and accusations of blasphemy, contempt of religion, desecration of religious symbols, and provoking sectarian strife in the country.  

In the period extending from 2018 to 2020, there were over 16 reported cases of musicians, journalists, and activists prosecuted for blasphemy or provoking confessional strife. State prosecutors and security agencies mishandled many of these cases by selectively applying the law, failing to follow standard procedures, and pressuring individuals under duress to sign pledges and remove content, or banning social media use altogether, even before appearing before a court. 

These articles of the Lebanese Penal Code are inconsistent and contradictory with the international treaties signed by Lebanon, which, according to law hierarchy, must precede local laws. Furthermore, these articles of the Penal Code are also in contradiction with the constitution and vis-à-vis each other.

In section 2, we give an overview about sectarianism in Lebanon, covering some historical aspects as well as the exclusion of non-religious individuals or groups by the constitution. In section 3, we discuss freedom of religion in Lebanon and delve into the details of civil rights. Freedom of expression was highlighted in section 4 as it was one of the most violated freedoms in the country. In particular, we highlight the restrictions imposed by the law as well as the articles of the Penal Code which are usually used to impose these restrictions. Some cases of violation if the law were listed and discussed in section 5. Based on the above sections, a legal analysis was provided in section 6 discussing the oddities and absurdities of the Lebanese law. Finally, we conclude with a list of recommendations in section 7.

 

2.   Overview: Sectarianism in Lebanon

Atheists, agnostics, seculars, and the non-religious are not officially counted in the census of Lebanon [1]. The country’s last official population census was taken during the French Mandate of Greater Lebanon in 1932 when the atheist population was assumed to be 0% [2]. Consequently, government positions, including seats in parliament and high government positions, historically distributed across recognized sectarian quotas, are not reserved for this segment of the population [2]. Since the issue of sectarian demographics is politically sensitive, as it directly affects power sharing arrangements, no census has been implemented since then [3].

During the French Mandate (which began in 1920, was ratified in 1923, and ended in 1946), and at the onset of the recognition of the Lebanese Republic (1920), the first Lebanese constitution (1926), modeled after that of the French Third Republic, stipulated that deputies were to be popularly elected along confessional lines. A custom of selecting major political officers, as well as top ranks within the public administration, according to the proportion of the major sects in the population was strengthened during this period [4]. Thus, for example, it was agreed that the president ought to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies a Shia Muslim [4]. A Greek Orthodox and a Druze would always be present in the cabinet [4].

While the French sought stability for their rule through this power-sharing scheme among the different Lebanese sects, this practice backfired as it increased sectarian tension for decades to come and hindered the formation of a Lebanese national identity [4]. A system where sects compete over influence and power was always destined to lead to competition and spill over to conflict [4].

In the period of the mandate, the Maronite president was provided with excessive power (such as the ability to choose the prime minister) [4]. Theoretically, the Chamber of Deputies, which represents all sects, performed the legislative function, but in fact bills were prepared by the executive, which was effectively controlled by the president, and submitted to the Chamber of Deputies, which then passed them virtually without exception.

After Lebanon gained its independence in 1943, the National Pact, which was an attempt to renew the political social contract in the country, further sidelined the concepts of citizenship and national identity by reaffirming that the president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament be Maronite Christian, Sunni Muslim, and Shia Muslim, respectively [5]. Members of parliament and high government officials also continued to be elected and selected based on sectarian quotas [5]. Instead of trying to overcome sectarian politics, the political leaders at the time went in the direction of re-assuring the sects of their political privileges and highlighted the ‘equal partnership’ of Muslims and Christians in running the country.

Yet the lack of a common identity among the Lebanese, as well as the distrust and competition among different sects, which was re-enforced by the sectarian power-sharing system, meant that Lebanon would always be susceptible to political crises and occasional civil wars [5].

In the aftermath of inevitable sectarian armed clashes, most notably in 1958, and a bloody 15-year civil war (1975-1990), also divided largely along sectarian and confessional lines, the Taif Agreement was reached in 1989. The agreement, which ended the civil war, yet again reaffirmed this sectarian arrangement, while mandating equal Muslim and Christian representation in parliament and reducing the power of the Maronite Christian presidency [5].

Although the constitutional amendments in the Taif Agreement used more recent census data, all the power-sharing quotas were still allocated, in different proportions, to the 18 officially recognized sects of Lebanon, and the non-religious were again assumed non-existent. No quota was thus reserved for atheists, agnostics, seculars, and the non-religious for government or parliament positions, or for high-ranking public jobs.

While some in the non-religious community in Lebanon call for establishing a “19th sect”, that is for acknowledging the non-religious as a new minority within the current sectarian system, Freethought Lebanon opposes such a demand and instead calls for the secularization of the country with equal rights for all citizens.

3.   Freedom of Religion

3.1.   Religious Freedom and the Lebanese Constitution

The constitution of Lebanon guarantees in principle:

a)    freedom of religion

b)   the freedom to practice religious rites

c)    the publication of religious material in different languages

d)   the State’s respect for the personal status of every religious sect and denomination.

These religious rights are stated in article 9: “there shall be absolute freedom of conscience. The state in rendering homage to the God Almighty shall respect all religions and creeds and shall guarantee, under its protection the free exercise of all religious rites provided that public order is not disturbed. It shall also guarantee that the personal status and religious interests of the population, to whatever religious sect they belong, shall be respected [6].”

The Lebanese State officially recognizes 18 religious groups; all of which are sects of Abrahamic Religions: Alawite, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Druze, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Isma'ili, Jewish, Roman Catholic, Maronite, Protestant, Sunni, Shia, Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox [7].

Restrictions on religious freedom can be enforced, notably the provision that religious groups do not disturb the public order. This vagueness of what constitutes a disturbance of public order has allowed for violent crackdowns on groups of individuals and heavy metal fans who were allegedly Satanists since the mid-1990s [8].

The Taif Agreement that ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in 1989, established a balance of power among the officially recognized religious sects and the constitutional distribution of senior political offices based on religious affiliations and quotas. Although the constitution declares equal rights and duties for all citizens without discrimination, the confessional quotas, and thus privileges, may be viewed as inherently discriminatory against both the non-religious and against individuals of non-recognized religious groups. This conflicts with the constitutional declaration of equal rights, and hence renders the constitution self-contradictory.

Furthermore, the reference to freedom of religion in the constitution is also self-contradicting. Article 9, mentioned above, both affirms absolute freedom of conscience while also affirming that the State renders homage to the God Almighty.

The constitution also gives the sects the right to establish their own educational institutions [6]. However, the religious authorities wanted to further expand their influence, so they effectively lobbied the state to enforce mandatory religious teaching classes within public schools starting in the year 2000 [31]. The religious sects also objected to any attempts of the state to monitor the content of these classes [31]. Thus, each public-school hosts religious classes that are unique to the sectarian composition of most of the students in that school [31]. In instances where a school is demographically mixed, students are divided into separate rooms during religious class [31]. The teachers would be appointed by religious institutions, rather than the state, and students are taught from a young age that religious difference is a non-bridgeable and fundamental difference in Lebanon [31]. This in turn reinforces the problematic nature of sectarianism in Lebanese society and within the Lebanese political realm.

3.2.   Official Recognition of Religious Groups

A religious group can seek official recognition by the State through a process of submitting its doctrines and moral principles for State approval [9]. The State would accordingly review the request to ensure that the teachings are not in conflict with dominant social values, or the laws of the nation as stipulated by the constitution [9]. A simple majority vote is needed in parliament for legislation and State recognition of a religion in Lebanon. Consequently, benefits are accrued by the religious group in the form of tax exemptions and the free application of religious values to personal status matters [9].

Not all religious groups in Lebanon are recognized. Some of these sects include Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is, and various Protestant Christian groups [9]. Sect members are free to assemble and practice their religious rites freely, yet they do not qualify for certain government positions, nor is a quota allocated for these sects in public sector employment [9]. Additionally, Lebanese law does not allow them to legally marry, divorce, or inherit property in the country [9]. Unrecognized groups are however free to register under the recognized religions [9].

The above legal disadvantages apply equally to citizens who have relinquished reference to their designated sect from their official civil registry (ikhraj qaid) [9]. Omitting reference to religious affiliation is not the same as leaving one’s religion, but only that the individual does not wish to declare it. Therefore, the sectarian-quotas based system effectively discourages individuals from even removing the reference to their familial religions, assigned at birth, from their official documents.

3.3.   Religion and Personal Status Matters

Personal status matters are exercised by religious authorities in Lebanon, not the State. These include matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody [9].

The Sunni, Shia, Druze, and Christian clerical courts are given legitimacy, jurisdiction, and autonomy by the State to administer family and personal status law to their respective communities [9]. These courts operate independently, with little intervention or oversight from the Court of Cassation, on the condition that the clerical courts abide by the Lebanese constitution [9]. Additionally, the State authorities endorse the appointment of Sunni and Shia muftis and the Druze Sheikh al-Aql, whose salaries are provided by the government and whose clerical courts are subsidized through State funds [9]. 

The individual’s religious affiliation is encoded on the civil registry “ikhraj qaid” [9]. This civil document indicates personal status information and can be presented instead of an identity card for government employment and university enrollment. By February 2019, 10,000 people in Lebanon had removed reference to their religious affiliation from their ikhraj qaid [10]. The procedure only requires sending a letter to the Ministry of Interior [10]. Prior to 1990, religious affiliation was also encoded on Lebanese ID cards. However, following the end of the civil war throughout which sectarian militias installed barricades and murdered other Lebanese citizens based on their ID card religious affiliation, religion was no longer mentioned on newly issued IDs, although the data showing the religious affiliation is still embedded in the barcode present on the ID cards [11].

Proselytism is allowed under Lebanese law [9]. Any individual may convert or change their religious affiliation, subject to the approval of the head of the religious group that the individual seeks to join [9].

3.4.   Women’s Rights Found Wanting

In personal status matters, Lebanon still falls behind on women’s rights. Women were found to face significantly more obstacles in law and court procedures in various forms. A review of personal status laws by Human Rights Watch found “a clear pattern of women from all sects being treated worse than men”, especially in cases of custody and divorce, both under the jurisdiction of clerical courts [12].

In 2014, the Parliament passed new laws to protect women from domestic violence, and in December 2020, the laws were further expanded in scope but still failed to specify marital rape in their amendments because of fierce opposition from Muslim-majority political parties that argued in previous years that a husband has the religious right to have intercourse with his wife, even if she objects [12]. Today, many Lebanese women remain vulnerable as marital rape is yet to be specifically criminalized, while sect-specific courts continue to have jurisdiction over marital matters. Additionally, Lebanese women are still denied the right to pass Lebanese nationality to their children, with the possibility of leaving their children stateless, while Lebanese men are guaranteed that same right [12]. Anti-government protests in 2020 also expressed opposition to this discriminatory law.

3.5.   Civil Marriage: Absence, Rejection, and Complications

The absence of procedures for civil marriage in Lebanon make intermarriage difficult to arrange in practice between members of some groups, notably in religious courts when the male is from a different religion, and in the case of Druze courts where mixed marriages are rejected. Absence of civil marriage is not just a hurdle to intermarriage. Many citizens who are of the same sect, on paper, strongly prefer a civil marriage rather than a religious one.

The Government does however recognize and register civil marriage ceremonies performed abroad, irrespective of the partners’ religious affiliations, given that a recorded civil marriage in Lebanon does not negate the religious affiliations of the partners [9].

The clerical courts’ laws would still apply on inheritance, and in various cases, as when a Christian man marries a Muslim woman, clerical courts do not permit inheritance from one partner to another [13]. It is also forbidden in this case for a Muslim mother to leave an inheritance to her children should they be registered as Christians on official government documents [13]. The Christian father, however, can pass an inheritance to his Christian children, registered under the same religious affiliation [13].

Religious groups have opposed the discussion and implementation of civil marriages in Lebanon since the 1930s during the French mandate and later in the 1950s when it was first debated in parliament [10]. It is important to note that the right to have a civil marriage in Lebanon has been guaranteed since 1936, but there has been no law to govern how this right is exercised [13]. Attempts to block civil marriage have therefore focused on preventing a Lebanese law for civil marriage, even if it is optional civil marriage [10].

Given that the legal right (but not the governing law) has been realized since 1936, religious authorities cannot block the registration of civil marriage among Lebanese people when they marry abroad (in which case the law of that country, such as Cyprus, would govern the marriage) [13].

In 2012, an innovative legal approach, compounded with favorable political pressure at the time, allowed for the ratification of a civil marriage in Lebanon between Khouloud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwich, and this represented a step toward secularizing family law [14]. The couple took advantage of decree no. 60 from 1936, stating that people who do not belong to any sect are entitled to a civil union, so the two removed reference to their sects – Sunni and Shia – from their civil registry, which had become possible to do since 2007 [14]. On September 30, 2013, Ghadi Darwich (son of Khouloud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwich) became Lebanon’s first newborn to be registered without a designated sect [15]. The couple later sought, and were granted, asylum in Sweden [15].

Other couples similarly bypassed the ban, if only temporarily, since only 13 such unions were recognized by then interior minister Marwan Charbel [10]. His successor, Nohad Machnouk, under pressure from religious groups, blocked the registration of other such civil marriages in Lebanon, leaving 37 civil unions without state recognition [10]. These couples then had to remarry abroad so that their children could be officially recognized [10].

Lebanon’s Sunni Grand Mufti, Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Kabbani, issued a fatwa decrying civil marriage and calling for the punishment of those who approved it [16]. The statement was issued on the Dar al Fatwa website in January 2013:

“Any Muslim with legal or executive authority in Lebanon who supports the legalization of civil marriage is an apostate and outside the religion of Islam […] There are predators lurking among us, trying to sow the bacteria of civil marriage in Lebanon, but they should know that the religious scholars will not hesitate to do their duty [16].”

The Higher Shia council also spoke against legalizing civil marriage in the country [14]. The Christian Maronite Patriarchy also has in previous decades fiercely opposed legalizing civil marriage in Lebanon, calling for “solidarity” with Lebanon’s Muslim community in opposing civil marriage [17].

Wadih Asmar, president of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, links the resistance of religious authorities against civil marriages in Lebanon to their fear of losing power over their communities [10]. An additional incentive for resistance, according to Asmar, is the fact that religious ceremonies constitute an important source of income for religious authorities, roughly estimated at over 10 million US dollars annually [10].

4.   Freedom of Expression

4.1.   Freedom and Restrictions

The Lebanese constitution guarantees freedom of expression in Articles 13: “the freedom to express one's opinion orally or in writing, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of association are guaranteed within the limits established by law [6].”

Although press freedom is also guaranteed in the Publications Law, free expression is constrained at the intersection of religious freedom. The government can legally censor publications it foresees as grounds to sectarian discord or national security threats [6]. Severe penalties in the form of fines and prison sentences also serve as a deterrent to free expression, under the criminal defamation clauses [18].

Lebanese laws prohibit the publication of any content seen as offensive to one of the officially recognized religions in the country [6]. Additionally, limitations are legally imposed on any criticism directed towards the army, the president, or religious authorities in the country, under the pretext of instigations to confessional bigotry, disruption of public peace, and the destabilization of the country’s sovereignty, unity, borders, and external relations [6]. Failing to adhere to one of such vaguely defined abstract terms could result in hyperbolic penalties, i.e., imprisonment from one to three years, and a fine from 50 million to 100 million Lebanese pounds [18].

4.2.   Vagueness on Online Speech

Lebanese law remains unclear on online speech in the absence of a regulatory framework. It is yet undecided if posts and tweets are subject to the Publications law or the Penal Code under the jurisdiction of the criminal courts [18]. This has resulted in conflicting rules, such as in 2016, when “the Publications Court of Cassation ruled on appeal that the Publications Court has no jurisdiction over content published on Facebook, overturning the lower court’s judgment that Facebook can be considered a publication and therefore subject to the jurisdiction of the Publications Court [18].”  Yet following this ruling, and as of this date, the publications court is still accepting defamation cases regarding online posts [18].

The publications law offers several guarantees, such as the prohibition of pretrial detention [19]. In contrast, criminal law allows pretrial detention for accusations that may result in imprisonment sentences longer than one year [20]. 

Furthermore, only an investigative judge can interrogate the accused, in the presence of the defendant’s lawyer [21]. The judge must then refer the case to the Publications Court within five days [21]. This mitigates the possibility of security agencies harassing, intimidating, and violating the defendant’s right to privacy. 

As observed by Human Rights Watch, evidence shows an exponential increase in the enforcement of existing laws that directly limit freedom of speech: an increase of 81 percent from 2017 to 2018 and a resounding 325 percent increase from 2015 to 2018 [18].

Consequently, institutional limitations have confined the non-religious to closed circles on social media platforms to echo their thoughts freely in a safe environment.  

4.3.   Penal Code: The Four Horsemen

The Lebanese Penal Code, which dates to 1943, contains four articles that are most frequently used as pretext to limit the freedom of expression of the non-religious in Lebanon.

Article 473 of the Lebanese Penal code criminalizes “blaspheming God publicly”. This offense carries a prison term that can extend from one month to one year maximum [6].

Article 474 carries a maximum sentence of three years for contempt of religion and “defaming religious rites” or its promotion, less broadly, disrespecting Christianity or Islam [6].

Article 475 criminalizes the “distortion of religious rituals or ceremonies or religious drawings related to those rituals”, in addition to the desecration of religious and sacred objects [6].

Article 317 criminalizes “writings and speech intended to provoke sectarian or racial strife or [to] encourage conflict between different religious sects.” The maximum prison term is three years [6].

Human Rights Watch Lebanon have reiterated the urgent need to repeal or replace these overly broad, archaic, vague, and poorly defined criminal insult and incitement laws, which are often exploited by the Lebanese authorities for the sole purpose of silencing free speech and expression [18].  

4.4.   Engines of Progress

In 2020, a “Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression in Lebanon” was formed by 14 Lebanese and international organizations to tackle the repression of dissent and criminal defamation, following the reported escalation in the repression of free expression and protests that ignited in the aftermath of the October 17 uprising [22]. 

A 2010 proposal to amend the outdated Publications Law has not been passed in parliament as of this date. The draft reiterates the limits on free speech, in accordance with existing laws, while further defining and regulating “electronic media”, placed under the jurisdiction of the Publications Court [18].  

Human Rights Watch are advocating for the amendment of the laws and articles in the draft that constitute “unacceptable restrictions on free speech” [18]. If the laws are passed in parliament without the recommended Human Rights Watch amendments, these laws would “set Lebanon even further behind” [18]. The purpose of Human Rights Watch is to align Lebanese laws with international human rights law [18].

5.   Cases of violations

5.1.   Summary

In the period extending from 2018 to 2020, there were over 14 reported cases of musicians, journalists, and activists prosecuted for blasphemy or provoking confessional strife [23]. Critiques against State prosecutors and security agencies’ handling of such cases can be summed in three categories:

a)    selectivity in applying the law

b)   prosecutors not following standard procedures

c)    pressuring individuals under duress to sign pledges and remove content or banning social media use even before appearing before a court. 

Lawyer Ghida Franjieh explains that “the punishment is the same for contempt of religious rites and inciting sectarian strife and is up to 3 years in prison. While contempt of religious rites is considered a crime against religion, inciting sectarian strife is a crime against state security, and is therefore not limited to religion only. Hence, it takes a sectarian, social, and political character. Therefore, judges see incitement to sectarian strife as more dangerous than contempt of religious rites, and are thus more severe in judging such cases, which serves first and foremost to protect the sectarian system by the judiciary [23].”

5.2.   Highlighted Cases

Charbel Khoury (2018)

In July 2018, Khoury was interrogated by the Cybercrimes Bureau after a lawsuit was filed against him by a Christian group because of a Facebook joke about a Christian saint [18]. The Mount Lebanon public prosecutor ordered Charbel Khoury to sign a pledge not to write about religion and to deactivate his Facebook account for one month [18]. Khoury told Human Rights Watch that the interrogator at the Bureau threatened him, saying, “if I see you on Facebook, I will drag you by your hair from your house, and we know where your house is [18].”

In the aftermath of the lawsuit, Khoury filed a complaint against a former colleague who physically assaulted him at their workplace [18]. However, none of the individuals assaulting or threatening to murder or rape Khoury were investigated despite clear violations of Lebanese laws [18].

Wadih al-Asmar (2018)

In August 2018, the Cybercrimes Bureau investigated Wadih al-Asmar, President of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH), for sharing a Facebook joke that a religious institution deemed to be insulting to religion [18]. Although the lawsuit against him was submitted on August 30, 2018, he was called by authorities for investigation before the date of the lawsuit, with the date of investigation being set on August 31, 2018 [18]. The mismatch in dates, according to al-Asmar, may suggest “cooperation between the prosecution and powerful religious authorities.” [18]

Mashrou’ Leila (2019)

In July 2019, Lebanese Byblos music festival was forced to cancel a planned concert of Lebanese indie band Mashrou’ Leila “to prevent bloodshed, avoid backlash from Christian fundamentalist groups, and maintain security and stability [24]”. Mashrou’ Leila has gained worldwide acclaim for tackling pressing social issues and speaking out against oppression, corruption, and homophobia in the Arab world [18]. Some reports state that objections were related to two songs which were allegedly blasphemous [25]. Other reports state that the uproar was caused by an insult to Christian beliefs, citing a then four-year-old Facebook post on the personal page of Hamed Sinno (Mashrou’ Leila’s vocalist) that transposed the face of pop diva Madonna onto an image of the Virgin Mary, noting that Sinno did not create the post but shared it from another source [25].

Legal complaints against the band were lodged by Catholic Church affiliated groups and blogger Philippe Seif, who condemned the band in a Facebook post: “Mashrou’ Leila’s legs should be broken before they set foot again in Byblos [26].” On July 22, a lawyer affiliated with religious groups filed a complaint with the public prosecution accusing the band of insulting religious rituals and inciting sectarian tensions through their social media posts and song lyrics [18].

The prosecution summoned some of the band’s members for interrogation two days after the complaint [27]. State Security questioned the band members for six hours before forcing them to sign pledges to censor some of their social media content and issue a public apology [27]. Mount Lebanon public prosecutor Judge Ghada Aoun ordered their release on the condition that the band members meet with the Archbishop of the Maronite Archdiocese of Jbeil [23].

The prosecution dismissed the complaint filed by 11 rights groups on July 30, 2019 calling for an investigation into the threats issued against the band, including incitement to violence and death threats [24].

Said Abdallah (2020)

In October 2020, Said Abdallah was imprisoned for 46 days for contempt of the President and inciting religious strife by posting on his Facebook account criticism of the Lebanese president and jokes about the Christian faith [28]. On January 21, 2021, following a lawsuit by Druze religious authorities, Abdallah was called in again for investigation by the Cybercrimes Bureau regarding posts criticizing the Druze sect [28]. He was blindfolded by military intelligence, intimidated, insulted, and then forced to unlock his phone and delete social media content from his personal profile [28]. The public prosecutor ordered his imprisonment and transferred his case to the criminal prosecutor before being released eight days later [28].

In their November 2019 report on the criminalization of free speech in Lebanon, Human Rights Watch detailed the contradictions and intricacies of how the government applied blasphemy laws in practice. Charbel Khoury, in his December 2020 article for Daraj, cites severe bureaucratic difficulties to acquire the case details to discuss their jurisprudence in his article [23]. Our analysis in this section is not of case studies in practice, but regarding the blasphemy laws in principle.

6.   Legal Analysis

As explained in the previous section, the articles used to pursue and incriminate “blasphemers” are articles 473, 474, 475, and 317 of the Penal Code. Aside from being contradictory to the law application hierarchy, these articles are both dangerous and absurd in the legal sense.

The reasoning for the inapplicability of these articles and their absurdity is as follows:

6.1.   Inapplicability of Articles

The code of civil procedures that defines the work of the courts, how they should apply the laws, and how to explain them states the following in article 2:

Article 2: “Courts should abide by the hierarchy of the laws: When an international treaty is in conflict with the regular law, the first is applied.” [29]

Moreover, Lebanon has joined and ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration states in its 18th and 19th articles:

Article 18: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” [30]

Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” [30]

Additionally, the Lebanese constitution states in its 9th article:

Article 9: “There shall be absolute freedom of conscience. The state in rendering homage to the God Almighty shall respect all religions and creeds and shall guarantee, under its protection the free exercise of all religious rites provided that public order is not disturbed. It shall also guarantee that the personal status and religious interests of the population, to whatever religious sect they belong, shall be respected.” [6]

We note here that in the Lebanese constitution, the practice of any religion is limited by not disturbing the public order. It states that the personal choices of belief should be respected, but it does not mention that we must necessarily respect all religious rituals and ideologies. Freedom of expression and the freedom to criticize religious ideologies, in any way possible, is protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the articles mentioned above. Given the hierarchy, this universal declaration ought to cancel the effects of the articles of Lebanese laws. In addition, the universal declaration confirms article 13 of the Lebanese constitution that guarantees Lebanese citizens their freedom of speech.

Article 13: “The freedom to express one’s opinion orally or in writing, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of association are guaranteed within the limits established by law.” [6]

This article is in conjunction with the segment of article 9 that clearly states: “free exercise of all religious rites provided that public order is not disturbed [6].”

6.2.   Absurdity of Articles

The Lebanese constitution states in article 7:

Article 7: “All Lebanese shall be equal before the law. They shall equally enjoy civil and political rights and shall equally be bound by public obligations and duties without any distinction.” [6]

It follows from article 7 that the application of articles 473, 474, 475 and 317 of the Lebanese Penal Code should be equal upon all Lebanese citizens.

Given the inherent contradictions among the Abrahamic religions, their practice may in many cases foster inter-confessional and national order instability, conflicting with article 317 of the Lebanese Penal Code.  Publicly expressing religious beliefs may also be used as pretext to insult, which criminalizes the behavior according to article 474.

Such instances can arise in the event of one sharing Quranic verse 72 of Surat Al Maidah which claims that those who believe in Christ as God are infidels: “Those who say, “Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary,” have certainly fallen into disbelief. The Messiah ˹himself˺ said, “O Children of Israel! Worship Allah—my Lord and your Lord. Whoever associates others with Allah ˹in worship˺ will surely be forbidden Paradise by Allah. Their home will be the Fire. And the wrongdoers will have no helpers.”

The beheading of said infidels is called for in Surat Muhammad verse 4: “So when you meet those who disbelieve [in battle], strike [their] necks until, when you have inflicted slaughter upon them, then secure their bonds, and either [confer] favor afterwards or ransom [them] until the war lays down its burdens. That [is the command]. And if Allah had willed, He could have taken vengeance upon them [Himself], but [He ordered armed struggle] to test some of you by means of others. And those who are killed in the cause of Allah - never will He waste their deeds.”

Hence, expressing belief in one’s own religion can be considered grounds for disturbing the national order as criminalized in the Lebanese Penal Code.

It is therefore unjust to prosecute non-violent civilians for mocking religions. It is an act which neither aggresses nor threatens to aggress against other civilians. While on the other hand, direct calls to aggression are protected by the legal system under the guise of freedom of religion.

7.   Recommendations

It is first and foremost essential for the Lebanese law to:

I.         Abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that Lebanon played a crucial role in formulating. Article 19 of the declaration ensures the right to free speech of minorities in Lebanon, among which are the non-religious.

II.      Consequently, articles 317, 473, 474, and 475 of the Lebanese Penal Code must be abrogated, effectively:

a.    decriminalizing the victimless crime of blasphemy.

b.    nullifying the legal suppression of dissenting opinions and free expression.

c.    abiding by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which necessitates that the laws be “necessary, proportionate, clearly articulated, and intended to protect a legitimate aim”; noting that the Rabat Plan of Action, signed in 2012, opposes blasphemy and defamation of religion laws due to their incompatibility with the right to freedom of expression and religion [18].

d.   limiting censorship over artistic expression beyond the narrow restrictions permitted under Article 19 of the universal declaration.

III.   The parliament must reconsider the adherence to the sectarian power sharing system. All citizens should have equal opportunities for political participation and public office based on competency, not quotas. A gradual, meaningful, and systematic transition from sectarianism to inclusive secularism must take place. Steps to nurture citizenship and foster social trust must be undertaken.

IV.   Finally, a civil personal status law option should be made available to the Lebanese citizens. This offers individuals the freedom to be subject to their choice of clerical or civil courts in personal matters, rather than having their rights (marriage, inheritance, custody) forcefully controlled by religious courts.

 

 

Acknowledgments

This report has been produced with the financial support of the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. The contents of this report are the sole responsibility of the publishers and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation.


We would like to thank Ali Shreif for proofreading the document and Ayman El Kaissi for the fruitful discussions and recommendations as well as formatting the final version.

 

 

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