Florence Massena

Sweden 'deporting' Lebanese couple despite 'death fatwas' back home

Kholoud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwish received many death threats after their civil union [Getty]

Date of publication: 5 February, 2020

A couple who married in defiance of Lebanon's ban on civil unions then fled to Sweden risk being sent back after migration authorities judged their situation as 'safe'.
Kholoud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwish were the first couple to be wed in a civil ceremony in Lebanon in 2012. But the happiness of their union did not last long, and in 2016 they had to flee Lebanon to Sweden after receiving numerous death threats. Their 'crime'? Marrying outside the religious confessional system and thus triggering a debate over the country's marriage laws.

Now nearly four years later, they are on the verge of being sent back to Lebanon, after Swedish migration authorities judged their situation as 'safe'.

Both Muslims, Darwish and Sukkarieh could have been religiously married in Lebanon, where only religious leaders can perform marriages.

But couples who want to keep the sheikhs, priests and pastors out of their love life have to get married elsewhere – most of the time in Cyprus, a close by island where around 3,000 fly in from the Middle East every year to get married, mostly Israelis and Lebanese.

But the couple didn't want to have to leave their country in order to get a civil wedding, instead making a stand against sectarianism, and working for 10 months to exploit a legal loophole to get a civil ceremony in Lebanon.

The legal loophole could be found in decree no 60 from 1936, stating that people who do not belong to any particular sect are entitled to a civil union, so the two removed their sects – Sunni and Shia – from their identity cards, which became possible to do since 2009. 

Soon their first son, Ghadi, was born and the couple became increasingly worried about his safety, which led them to seek shelter in Sweden in 2016 where they applied for asylum.

Read also: Lebanese demand civil marriage on home soil

"We left Lebanon because of the Fatwa of Qabbani which encouraged fanatics to kill us," Sukkarieh told The New Arab.

"Also, we received a death threat for our kid via Facebook messenger, in addition to the whole negative situation about civil marriage that keeps us unsafe," he added.

Qabbani, the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, issued a fatwa – a religious edit – on January 2013 on Dar el-Fatwa [Lebanon's Sunni authority] website, stating that: "Any Muslim with legal or executive authority in Lebanon who supports the legalisation 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".

The couple received more threats through social media, threatening to kill the couple's son, as The New Arab verified. Sukkarieh also transferred a video from ten months ago on German TV, where two Lebanese religious leaders were interviewed. One said this fatwa is still there and people should follow Islam laws or else they will be punished, adding that in the Lebanese constitution, religious men have the right to interfere in any civil laws to protect their sect, people and religion.

"We did not feel safe and we will not because the threats are still there and none of the political and religious leaders agree to civil marriage," Sukkarieh said.

"The discussion was reopened last year by Minister of Interior Raya el-Hassan, but religious men opposed her and advised her to study more about religion. We also believe that the security forces will not protect us because they are under sectarian leader's direct control.

"Nowadays, people freely expressing that they need food and a better life are arrested and hit harshly by the police, so we know that all of the odds are against us and it is not safe to go back."

Read also: Lebanon debates introducing civil marriage

Since October last year, a protest movement has taken over the country where thousands of people have gone to the streets to ask for better conditions of life and new leaders. A new governmental cabinet was formed on January 20, 2020, but the streets rejected it and kept on protesting, leading them to be beaten up and randomly detained by official security forces.

"We don't have a civil law [for marriage in Lebanon] and even if we did, the mechanism for implementation does not exist," Alia Awada, advocacy and campaign manager for the civil rights and gender organisation ABAAD, told The New Arab.

"When you marry civically outside of Lebanon's territory, you just register when you come back, so it's easier. The problem is not really about if the society is accepting it, it's about how religious leaders are acting towards such marriages," she explained.

"This is because we have personal status laws [laws different from one sect to another, leading people's personal lives] and those laws give power to the religious leaders to control our lives as citizens, instead of having the same laws for everyone. That's why they [the religious leaders] are fighting against any civil marriage law in the country and the people are getting married outside."

After four years of applying for asylum at Malmö, in the south of Sweden, the couple's request was rejected three times, meaning that they will now have to leave the country.

"The reasons given to us were that Lebanon has no war, and that the security forces can protect us from religious threats," Sukkarieh told The New Arab.

"But this is not right because the fatwa is higher than the civil laws there."

When contacted by The New Arab, the Swedish Migration Agency answered through their press officer Annica Dahlqvist, who is also a gender and LGBTQI specialist.

"The decision was made by two people working with asylum cases at the Swedish Migrations Agency, a case officer and a senior case officer," Dahlqvist said by email. "It was made after two interviews with each of the adults, a written statement from the family's legal representative and a review of all the information gathered in the case, both written and oral statements.

"The conclusion of the decision is that the family has not, with their oral statement and their written evidence, made it likely that they risk persecution on religious grounds nor that there is a concrete and individual threat against them in Lebanon for other reasons.

"The oral statement about the threats that the family has given the Migration Agency has been assessed to lack in credibility. […] There is thus no need for the Migration Agency to assess the availability of internal protection."

On paper, not a lot seems to suggest the couple would actually risk death if sent back to Lebanon. But in the country, reality is a bit different, as revenge and rage killings do happen, sometimes for something as simple as having overtaken a car on the road.

"We feel that we might be killed," Sukkarieh said. "We are public figures so it is easy to track us."

Florence Massena is a freelance journalist based in Lebanon, where she reports on the region with a focus on the environment, women's issues, refugees and humanitarian initiatives.

Follow her on Twitter: @FlorenceMassena 

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