BEIRUT – She was an English language tutor with an easy smile and an independent streak. He was a gym receptionist who wanted to better himself.
They met for English lessons, swapped views on life and fell in love. Three months ago, a notary married them before their friends and family — but not in the eyes of the Lebanese government.
The government has not recognized the marriage of Kholoud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwish because a religious official did not register it. The case has sparked a fierce debate in Lebanon over civil marriage and how its legalization would affect the country's tenuous sectarian system.
Public figures have spoken up, with the president suggesting a new law and the top Sunni cleric threatening Muslims who support it with damnation.
Underlying these arguments is the deep sectarianism of Lebanon, where religious affiliation is often tied to where one lives, how one speaks and which TV station one watches. Many Lebanese seem to have a sixth sense for divining others' sects based on dress, hometown and other factors.
Reflecting these divides — and perpetuating them, some argue — is a political system in which posts are allocated to specific religious groups. The parliament and Cabinet must be half Muslim and half Christian, while an unwritten agreement ensures, for example, that the president is a Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament is a Shiite Muslim.
All significant political parties have well-known sectarian affiliations that are usually more important than their policies in attracting voters.
Defenders of this system say it is the only way that 4.2 million people from 18 recognized sects can share their tiny country without killing each other. Indeed, many of the sensitivities and arrangements trace back to the country's brutal 15-year civil war and the agreement that ended it in 1990.
Others note that Lebanon's system allows more freedom than the dictatorships in other Arab countries — exempting it from the recent uprisings against autocratic regimes.
Still, tensions are always high. Consider these recent news items:
— For weeks, Lebanese politicians have been arguing about revising a law that determines how sects' votes are counted.
— On Jan. 24, a Christian allegedly shot and killed a Shiite and his son during a dispute over gravel, causing residents of the Shiite man's village to block a major thoroughfare with burning tires.
— That same day, a hardline Muslim cleric took busloads of supporters to a ski resort in a Christian area, causing a tense stand-off and brief fisticuffs with residents. The army intervened.
Critics of the sectarian system, including the newlyweds, say it exacerbates such tensions and limits rights by viewing people primarily as members of a religious community.
"The underlying issue is how the Lebanese citizen relates to the state," said Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch. "Does he relate only through his religious community, which he was born into, or does he relate as a citizen with a set of rights directly from the state?"
The couple's attempt to register their civil marriage is a push for latter.
"We dream of a country that is not sectarian and where people don't just have rights from their sect," said Sukkarieh, the bride. "We're working to get rid of the sectarian system."
Under conventional Lebanese law, marriages must be between members of the same sect and registered by a religious authority.
If people from different sects wish to marry, their only options are for one partner to convert or to marry abroad. This option is so common that Lebanese travel agents offer "civil marriage" packages, usually to Cyprus.
Darwish and Sukkarieh — who are Shiite and Sunni Muslims, respectively — tried to subvert this system by basing their marriage contract on a 1936 law they say permits civil marriage for those with no religious affiliation.
With the help of legal activists, they went through a months-long process to strike their sects from their government records, then signed a civil marriage contract with a notary, who sent it to the Interior Ministry for registration.
The ministry has yet to respond, but news of the couple's "civil marriage" unleashed a tidal wave of reactions.
On Jan. 20, President Michel Suleiman expressed support on his Facebook page for a law legalizing civil marriage, calling it "a very important step in eradicating sectarianism and solidifying national unity." The post garnered hundreds of comments and nearly 8,000 "likes."
This week, Lebanon's top Sunni cleric, Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani, fired back, blasting the effort to "plant the germ of civil marriage in Lebanon" with a religious edict declaring any Muslim official who participated in its legalization an "apostate."
Such officials will "bear the sins of any Muslim sons or daughters who enter into this illegal relationship until judgment day," he said.
Christian leaders have been less outspoken, although they have opposed such laws in the past.
Father Abdo Abou Kassm, director of the Catholic Media Center, said the church recognizes only religious marriages, and that those married elsewhere can't participate in sacraments like baptism or communion until they right themselves.
He said if civil marriage became legal in Lebanon, the church would follow the laws, but noted that other personal status issues like divorce and inheritance are also handled by religious authorities. Changing that would require a host of new laws that he said are unlikely to pass.
"To do this would mean separating religion from the state, and I don't think you can do that in Lebanon," he said.
Most doubt the couple's marriage will be approved or that Lebanese politicians will push to legislate civil marriage. No one has proposed such a law since 1998, and Prime Minister Najib Miqati has dismissed the issue as too divisive to address at this time.
Paul Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Center said religious authorities would fiercely oppose any such law because officiating marriages and divorces preserves their influence in society and earns them money.
"Civil marriage is a break in all of those dikes," he said. "It really is a test case for how the sectarian system protects itself."