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WHEN RELIGIONS CLASH…


    Lebanon, with its strictly sectarian system, is a unique nest of interreligious coexistence. Three monotheistic religions and about eighteen official sects are integrated in the Lebanese people’s daily lives. The religious pluralism gives rise to political instability within Lebanon’s civil and public spheres. Putting aside the once-in-a-while political ups and downs, the Lebanese have learned to tolerate the “other”, share their land, breathe the same air, live under the same sun, and declare everlasting brotherhood. This partnership reached a new horizon when interreligious marriages were not so uncommon anymore, and religious conversions were not that much of a “big deal”. Lebanon being the window to the Middle East is an ideological bridge, linking the East to the West, would be one of the first countries to be influenced by the notion of globalization, where the world would become, in Marshall McLuhan’s words, a ‘global village’, where geographic, political, economic, cultural and religious boundaries are no more respected, actually no more exist. Such is the case in Lebanon and the issue of interreligious marriages. Would the Lebanese also find a way to ‘solve’ this issue? Or would the “Christian Mohammads” and “Muslim Georges” carry Lebanese nationalities without having a real sense of identity to a single faith? For many couples religion unifies and strengthens their marriage, but for others it tears them apart. The latter is much more predictable. 

   Views regarding interreligious marriages are very much diverse, yet overlapping. Human rights activists vigorously fight that love is a sacred right. They back up their argument with the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ 16th article, where it states that: “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family”. However, how realistic and future-oriented is this view? Do humans also have the right to be selfish? To live the present and forgo the future? To live romance and gamble faith? And to choose love over religion? When individuals from two different religions marry, they sometimes begin a lifetime of disagreements that can be devastating to the sacred union of marriage and parenthood. When disagreements arise, they are often over different views on core values, such as faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, and compassion. These differences can stir up difficult conflict over religious upbringing of children, over decisions about how to handle life events such as birth, death, and holiday celebrations, and over the absence of a religious bond in the relationship. 

   Those who follow the philosophy of Kahlil Gibran are very much open to interreligious marriages. Gibran had a unique view of religious diversities as such: “I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church; for you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit” (The Voice of the Poet). However religious texts clearly state that religions are very much different and many of their verses forbid interreligious marriages. In general, Muslim men are not permitted to marry non-Muslim women. “Do not marry unbelieving women until they believe” (Qur’an 2:221). An exception is made for Muslim men to marry Jewish and Christian women, who are referred to as “People of the Book”. The children of such a union are always to be raised in the faith of Islam. Yet Gibran states: “You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts” (On Children, The Prophet). The Quranic verse continues: “Nor marry your girls to unbelievers until they believe”. No exception is given for women to marry Jews and Christians, so the law states that she may only marry a believing (Muslim) man. A Muslim woman does not follow the leadership of someone who does not share her faith and values. According to the Torah, Jews should not intermarry because their children will turn to other religions. “You shall not intermarry with them (other nations), do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. For you will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods…” (Deuteronomy 7:1-3). Even St. Paul is exhibiting total intolerance of non-Christian faith groups; “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? (2 Corinthians 6:14-15). Some may argue that these religious texts as old-fashioned, but that may even give rise to questioning God Himself.

 Political activists validate their tolerance of interreligious marriages with the argument that if multiple religions are tolerated within a country, multiple religions within a family should be allowed too. However, take the concept of Ashura. Shockingly, asking Muslims about the religious event would not just result in different but also contrasting answers. The two viewpoints belong to the Shiite and Sunni sects that although sub branches of a single religion, hold diverse perspectives of the same religious event. There are differences and misunderstandings within one religion and between sects; then what if it were in between two different religions? So now try to imagine a child having a Shiite father and a Sunni mother. How would both approach to teach their child religious obligations, such as Ashura? Whose perspective is the priority? Having in mind that we are still a patriarchal community to a certain extent, the father’s sect would have primary loyalty than the mother’s. So would the mother’s sect and beliefs be completely ignored? And what happened to women’s rights and equality? Although the Jewish community in Lebanon is small and ‘hidden’, but let’s take the surprising combination of a Jewish and Shiite couple. Who would the child tend towards? The Shiite community, where they shed tons of blood and martyrs to free the country’s Southern region and achieve Lebanon’s geographic integrity? Or towards the Jewish state, where they lead an immoral war against innocent people to regain the integrity of the ‘promised land’? Furthermore Orthodox Judaism considers a person born of a Jewish mother to be Jewish, yet in Islam, the child must be raised in the faith of Islam. So who “wins”?

   Romantics believe that “love is blind”. They stress that one cannot just choose his/her life partner; instead, destiny has already chosen his/her soul mate for him/her. You can see couples bragging about their ‘love at first sight’, that butterfly feeling in their stomach, the increase of adrenaline in their veins, the sudden heart pumps, and cupids flying above them. Tolerating interreligious marriages, they stress that no one can forbid the other from loving and being loved, for “What God has united, man must not divide” (Matthew 19:6). While interfaith relationships develop based on a mutual respect for religious diversity, sometimes major differences in fundamental beliefs pose difficulties in finding a common ground. Religious differences could bring complexities in their married life, starting with religious conversions. Religious conversion may be a matter of just a brief ceremony, but do not underestimate this ritual as a trivial matter. Taking this oath will set a tone for your life and your children’s lives. You will soon find out that the conversion was not just a matter of satisfying the sentimental obsession of the parents-in-law, but a binding commitment guarded by every member of the new community. As associating partners with Allah is the greatest of all sins. Offering prayers or supplications to anyone, living or dead, is an unpardonable sin. Therefore, one should be prepared to acceptconversion to a new religion as a serious and irreversible process.

   Other activists argue that, in the truest sense, marriage is a secular act and not a religious one. Unfortunately, some religious leaders and communities would like to use the wedding as a tool for their ambition of religious expansion. This is not true. It is not a case of religious expansionism rather than preservation of generations, heritage, culture, values, traditions, and sovereign identities. Those who do not view marriage in its religious aspect are not looking at marriage in its future sense. In an inter-faith couple there is often no room to compromise without one spouse giving up some of their beliefs. Religious conversion is not a hollow ritual devoid of any meaning or consequences. Let’s take a Christian-Muslim marriage as an example. As per the Shahada oath to convert to Islam, one accepts and declares that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger. Further, you acknowledge that associating others (like Jesus) with Allah is the greatest of all sins. Similarly, baptism before a church wedding means conversion to Christianity and a commitment to repudiate former practices (of Islam) and to live with Christ forever. Young children get confused with mixed and often conflicted messages. When confronted with such duplicity, children lose faith in any God or religion. Children with unclear religious orientations tend to be more nonreligious to avoid such complexities. This would cause a much more serious problem of atheism. Plus, to understand the relationship between the two religions a question pops up: “Is Jesus’ father, Mohammad’s God?” That is another story.

   Do you see how complex these situations are? These were simple examples with no exaggerations whatsoever. There are many more simple things that make a big difference in interreligious marriages. The family kitchen and cuisine could be one of those simple complexities, where one’s national dish may be a ‘Haram’ to the other’s culture, or the wardrobe of one would be an insult to the other’s religion. When Jesus and his disciples were invited to a wedding in Cana (Lebanon) and when the wine ran out Jesus turned water into wine by performing a miracle. Wine is also used in religious ceremonies in almost all churches. However in Islam alcohol is strictly forbidden. Eating pork meat is another sin for Muslims, yet several cultures include pork meat in their dishes, the Armenian cuisine being one of them. And the complexities continue. Further, divorce rates in interfaith marriages are double compared to within the same faith marriages. A survey done by religioustolerance.org in March 2002 show that 50% of interfaith couples don’t last, separate and divorce; 25% of couples endure marriages which are almost totally lacking in intimacy; they co-exist in two solitudes, and the remaining 25% live in happy, mutually supportive marriages.

   The Holy Bible states: “Love is patient, love is kind… It is not self-seeking”. (Corinthians 13:4-5). Be patient. Choose your life partners with care. Love both with heart and mind. Do not be self seeking, but rather think of who would come after you. Think about the infants you give life to, about their future, their psychological stability, their self-esteem and confidence, their identity and their relationship with God Almighty. You may be wise and faithful to your primary cultural group or you may go ahead and sing Elvis’ “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You”. You’d better choose the first!

Hrag T. Avedanian

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