Muslims 54 % (Sunni 27%, Schia 27%), Christians 41 %, Druzes 5 %
Lebanon, with just 4 million inhabitants lies on the Mediterranean coast and borders Syria to the North and East and Israel to the South. Members of 17 different faith communities live in the Republic, which in the global North is often regarded as a democratic (and Christian) bastion in the region. Although rejection of faith is not officially punishable in Lebanon, a life without membership of a religious community is politically and socially not possible.
1. Political Dimension
Although Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy with a variety of political parties and, to a greater or lesser extent, free and fair elections, the entire system assumes membership of a particular religion.
The origin of this lies in the religious diversity of the country. To prevent conflicts, the three most important government offices are always occupied by representatives of the country’s largest religious communities: Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Maronite Christians.
Nevertheless, political/religious violence has erupted again and again over the years, culminating in a 15-year civil war, and continuing even after its official end.
The atrocities of the war, in which all groups were involved, have left behind a deep distrust between the religious communities, which even today still affect the social structure, so that there can be no talk of peaceful coexistence – precisely because flight and expulsion have led to a more homogeneous demographic distribution of the differing religious groups1
2. Social Dimension
Religious pluralism is a living reality in Lebanon. However, it is simply impossible, not to be a member of any faith.
Efforts to ensure the independence of each religious community have led to important areas of civil law, such as marriage, divorce, custody, etc., being regulated by the respective religious institutions.
Activists have achieved a lot in these areas in recent years and continue to fight for secular institutions and freedom from discrimination.
In 2015 the Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights criticized that for people who openly profess to be agnostics, many personal matters can only be resolved with the institutions of their original religious community2.
3. Criticism of religion and not believing – is this possible?
The largely privatized media landscape in Lebanon, like the political parties, is also religiously shaped and divided.
However, free media and artists are denied freedom of expression because the defamation of political and religious authorities, as well as the Lebanese army, is prohibited by law, and the Lebanese penal code prohibits the offence of religion.
Thus for example according to Human Rights Watch, the poet Mustafa Sbeity was arrested in November 2017 because he was accused of insulting the Virgin Mary in a Facebook post.
Although the sentence for such crimes is small, the conditions of detention in Lebanon do not meet human rights standards; long detention on remand is common and is a means of restricting freedom of expression and intimidating people. Mustafa Sbeity was released after 16 days in prison.3
However, critics of religion and agnostics* are by no means safe in Lebanon. The government does not have a comprehensive monopoly on the use of force and many regions are completely without law and order; here armed militias and influential clans, including the Shiite Hezbollah, are in control. Kidnapping and violence are the means by which the concepts of justice of these groups are enforced, and the Lebanese authorities are virtually powerless to do anything in these situations.
For Lebanese asylum seekers, this pseudo-governmental order is not only a threat to them and their families in Lebanon. In order to obtain political asylum – this also includes persecution based on religious conviction and the resulting threat of human rights violations – the threat must emanate from state actors* (§25 para. 1 AufenthG).
But reality shows how non-state groups terrorize the population, especially dissidents, and how the respective governments are unwilling or unable to prevent this.
Here it is necessary to question the existing asylum system and to expand the scope of definitions in order to effectively protect people from persecution and violence.
In particular, the handling of cases such as these must be improved so that the specific local situation can be properly assessed – this much must be demanded in states which are committed to respecting human rights.
1) Samir Khalaf (2002). Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon -A History of the Internationalization of Communal Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press
2) United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council (2015). Periodic Review. [Online] URL: https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G15/195/97/PDF/G1519597.pdf7OpenElement
3) Press Release Point (2018). Lebanon: Patterns of Prosecution for Free Speech. [online] URL: http://www.pressreleasepoint.com/lebanon-pattern-prosecutions-free-speech
About the author: Marlene Auer is a social worker and is currently studying for her Master’s degree in Intercultural Conflict Management at the Alice-Salomon University in Berlin. She is concerned with migration, particularly its global and social aspects, with a special interest in the Middle East and North African regions.