Last Updated 10 November 2016

The Lebanese Republic has a population of around 5.9 million people, of which almost 1.4 million are mostly Syrian (and some Palestinian) refugees. The country’s history has been marked by sectarian tensions between its numerous and diverse ethnic and religious groups which came to a head in the Lebanese civil war (1975 to 1990). The population includes a 56% Muslim majority (28% Sunni and 21% Shia), 35,5% Christians, 5,3% Druzes and small numbers of Baha’is, Jews, Ismailis, Alawites and others. Recently the country suffers from several extremist attacks and the spillover from the Syrian conflict.  Lebanon is a member of the League of Arab States (LAS), as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The constitution and other laws and policies guarantee freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of expression. However, these laws are not always respected in practice. Furthermore, the entire system of government is based on sectarian quotas, which in practice encourages religious discrimination and discourages leaving one’s familial assigned religion. Most non-religious people in practice must conform to a religious identity.

The constitution requires the state to respect all religious groups and denominations and declares equality of rights and duties for all citizens without discrimination. The constitution stipulates that there be a balance of power among the major religious groups and provides that Christians and Muslims be represented equally in parliament, the cabinet, and high-level civil service positions. It also provides that these posts be distributed proportionally among  all the recognized religious groups, trying to prevent a single group from gaining a dominant position. The 1943 “National Pact” stipulates that the president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament be Maronite Christian, Sunni Muslim, and Shia Muslim, respectively. The 1989 Taif Agreement, which ended the country’s 15-year civil war, reaffirms this arrangement while mandating equal Muslim and Christian representation in parliament and reducing the power of the Maronite Christian presidency. In addition, most senior government officials are appointed according to religious affiliation. If citizens decide to remove their religion from their official documents, they consequently limit their ability to hold government positions. Although not required by law, religion is generally encoded on national identity cards and noted on “ikhraaj qaid” (official registry) documents. Citizens have the right to remove their religion or change the religion on their identity cards and official registry documents. The government does not require religious affiliation on passports. However, religious group identity remains very important on the societal and cultural level.

There are 18 officially recognized religious groups, including Ismailis, Alawites, Druzes and Jews. The government does not officially recognize some religious groups such as Bahais, Buddhists, Hindus, and unregistered Protestant groups. Members of these groups can not hold certain government positions, but they are permitted to perform their religious rites freely. Government records list some members of unregistered religious groups as belonging to recognized religious groups. The authorities appoint Sunni and Shia muftis and the Druze Sheikh al-Aql and pays their salaries, however, the government does not pay the salaries of Christian officials. An individual is allowed to change religion if the change is approved by the head of the religious group the person wishes to join. The government permits the publication of religious materials of every religious group in different languages and there are no legal prohibitions to proselytizing.

In March 2014, former President Michael Suleiman appeared to evaluate atheism on a par with war and fundamentalism, in a speech during the election campaign. He said: “Peace will defeat war. Faith will defeat fundamentalism and atheism.”

Recently sectarian violence has increased. Extremist groups, including ISIL and al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility for several car bombings and suicide bomb attacks mainly in the Shia suburbs of Beirut. The balance of religious denominations has been changed a lot by the increasing number of (mainly Sunni Muslim) Syrian and Palestinian refugees. In October 2014 a conflict between Alawites and Sunni broke out. Shiite Hizballah’s participation in Syria has further inflamed sectarian tensions. In Ramadan 2014, Islamists attacked with grenades the few restaurants and cafes in Tripoli that remained open during the fasting hours. Anti-Semitic rhetoric remains present in the Lebanese media. However, religious and political leaders continue to support peaceful coexistence and oppose violent extremism.

Education and children’s rights

Almost all schools offer compulsory religious education, with no secular or humanist alternative, and there is no state authority which monitors the influence religious sects have in schools.  In private religious schools, teachers are free to impose their beliefs on the pupils.  In public schools, religious authorities from the local community go to the schools to organise and teach religious education.  In Christian majority schools, a priest will go, and in Muslim majority schools a sheikh. For mixed schools, both will attend.

This allows both principal of the schools and the local religious leaders a large amount of discretion over religious education.  In one case, there was a report a principal insisted a muslim leader from his own sect attend the school and teach Islam to the pupils, despite the majority of the students being Christian.

Likewise, there are similar reports of children being banned from and forced to wear headscarves: the Al-Mabarrat Charitable Association requires all female pupils and teachers to wear headscarves, although it does allowed Christian children to opt-out of the Islamic religious education.

In 2014 the (secular) International School of Shoueifat (SABIS) banned religious symbols from its school and did not allow students, who had a cross sign drawn on their forehead, to attend school. The ministry of education intervened and SABIS repealed their ban.

Family, community and society

Until 2013 there were no procedures for civil marriage. However in early 2013 the ratification of a civil marriage between Kholoud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwish has been a step toward secularizing family law. Caretaker interior minister Marwan Charbel signed the couple’s marriage contract in April 2013, making them the first couple in Lebanon and the Arab world to get a civil marriage in their home country. Prior to 2013 the government of Lebanon did recognize civil marriage ceremonies performed outside the country, irrespective of the religious affiliation of each individual.

In most cases the government permits recognized religious groups to administer their own family and personal status laws, such as marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. There are 15 different recognized personal status laws, determined by an individual’s religious affiliation. Unrecognized groups may own property and assemble for worship without government interference; however, they may not perform legally recognized marriage or divorce proceedings, and they have no standing to determine inheritance issues.

Discrimination against women

Women suffer from unequal treatment under all religious family laws, including discrimination in matters of divorce, inheritance and child custody. Lebanese women are not allowed to pass on their nationality to children, while Lebanese men are. There is no law prohibiting marital rape, however, in 2014 the Parliament passed a new law on the protection of domestic violence.

Freedom of Expression, advocacy of humanist values

The constitution guarantees freedom of expression and Lebanon has a long tradition of press freedom. While there is some government interference in reporting on politically sensitive issues, a greater threat comes from the threat of violence against reporters. Freedom of assembly is protected by the constitution and has generally been unrestricted in practice. Freedom of expression is generally protected and respected, but with a few important (and many minor) caveats.  For instance, it is illegal to criticise religious leaders, the president or the army, and it can carry a jail sentence.

While religious freedom is protected in the constitution, informally discrimination is relatively common at the local level.  A Christian priest was kidnapped at gunpoint for baptising a Shia woman after she fled her home and converted to Christianity. Films and other art pieces are regularly censored if they contain any contentious material – for instance, a film making a passing reference to Lebanon’s assassinated president, or a piece of graffiti caricaturing the King of Saudi Arabia.

Blasphemy laws exist in Lebanon. Articles 473-474 of the Penal Code state that people can be sentenced for a maximum of 1 year for blaspheming or otherwise insulting a religion – although, importantly, there are no recent cases recorded. In 2014, a blasphemy accusation resulted in the burning down of a large Christian library.

Highlighted cases

The library of a Greek Orthodox priest, Ibrahim Sarrouj, was burnt down in Lebanon in January 2014 after he was accused of insulting Islam.  Accounts differ as to the exact events leading up to the fire, with Lebanon’s Daily Star reporting a fatwa was issued against Father Sarrouj after he published an article on a Danish website, whereas AFP reported a blasphemous pamphlet was discovered in one of his books. The library, used by the whole community, was burned down following a “sectarian scuffle.”


“I am an agnostic atheist and I did come out proudly as one in Lebanon. As expected, I was cyber bullied for it but it didn’t stop me from voicing my opinion on religion and its impact on society and especially on gender issues. I mostly hang out with fellow atheists now but before that, I lost friends because of my views. I tend to keep my religious views to myself at work because it could affect my relationship with colleagues and it is not worth it.”

— Xena

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