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19 May, 2009 06:40

Love or religion? Couple in Syria faces difficult choice

A couple in Syria is finding it hard to have their marriage legally recognized. He's Syrian, she's Armenian, but because of religious differences their union is not recognized by the law.

In an ordinary suburb of Damascus lives an extraordinary couple. Tammam is Syrian, and Anna is Armenian. Together they spend their time making stop-motion cartoons.

But to be different is not always better. Tammam is a Druze, a member of a small splinter religion. Anna is Christian Orthodox.

In Syria, only a church can officially register a marriage. And religions can only marry within themselves: a Muslim may only marry a Muslim, a Christian another Christian, and a Druze another Druze.

There is one loophole: a Muslim man may marry a woman of any religion. So, to get married, Tammam has to convert to Islam.

Tammam Hamzeh believes “this is pointless, unfair and absurd”.

“My visa is running out again. Every six months I have to return to Armenia to get another visitor visa. But for my husband to convert just because of visas is just unethical,” his wife Anna says.

The absence of an official marriage certificate has serious implications for inheritance rights, family benefits, and the legal position of any future children the two might have. Anna and Tammam are now planning to leave Syria.

With one in ten Syrians a non-Muslim, mixed religion relationships do happen. But Syria is ruled by Shariah law, where government edicts are made in accordance with the principles of the Koran, not secular rules.

Human Rights groups say this curtails the rights of mixed-religion couples.

“Civil marriage is the only adequate solution for a multi-religious and open society,” said Hala Barbara, a Human Rights lawyer.

The latest Freedom House report rated Syria as one of the worst civil rights offenders in the world.

The status of mixed-religion couples is unlikely to change unless the religious authorities adjust their attitudes.

Dr. Mouhammed Habbash, a renowned academic and parliamentarian, says his sermons attempt to reconcile Islam with the practical challenges of the 21st century.

Commenting on whether he’d accept the idea of civil marriage, he said, “All of our members refuse this kind of marriage."

“We have traditions. We have history. We have understanding,” he added.

Even the most optimistic experts predict the situation won’t change in the next decade.

Until then, non-Muslim men will continue to face Sophie’s choice of either giving up their religion, or condemning themselves and their partner to a life of illegitimacy.