Growing up in Europe as a Greek Orthodox Christian, we never really thought about who was a member of what religion. It didn’t matter anyway. But frequent visits to a country like Lebanon always ensured I felt the difference with my Muslim friends. The small Mediterranean nation officially recognizes 18 religious denominations, including four Muslim and 12 Christian sects, among others. Most Lebanese would be able to guess which branch of which religion you belonged to, from a mere last name and place of residence.
The 1975 civil war between Christians and Muslims created a rift that many of us feel to this day. As a Christian living in the West, I never truly understood why all of my close Muslim friends – many of whom were my neighbors in London – were located so far away from me in Beirut.
That segregation would be carried into other aspects of life. Thus, marrying into another religion in Lebanon is generally frowned upon. Although civil marriages can be registered in the country, interfaith marriages are not allowed legally. This means that all such marriages have to be performed abroad, usually in neighboring Cyprus.
I was raised in a family that would have preferred a Christian partner for me, claiming it would be “easier.” But my parents were not opposed to me settling down with a Muslim, as long as the one I chose loved and respected me, did not require me to convert and was not conservative. As such, I never discriminated in my dating life, although many of my Arab friends would send me strange glares whenever I mentioned someone with a religion different to my own.
Over time – and after moving to the Middle East a decade ago – I realized that I could end up with a Christian man who was completely different to me, even in our take on our shared religion, while feeling much more in tune with a non-practicing Muslim. Religion alone does not determine compatibility.
And that is how I ended up with my husband, a non-practicing Sunni Muslim whose ideas on spirituality very much align with my own. For conservative religious Arab families, or even less strict ones, that would seem virtually impossible. But after slowly introducing the idea to my own family and allowing them to witness my husband’s behavior first-hand, they quickly “adopted” him.
Owing to their experience of living through Lebanon’s civil war, I feel they will always remain a bit cautious when someone or something “different” comes into the picture, out of their own familial urge to protect me. But what I have truly loved witnessing throughout this process was the gradual change that even my Arab Christian family was able to go through. Their understanding, acceptance and embrace of my husband has been nothing short of heart-warming. And I know I am one of the lucky few who can claim that.
The same applies to an increasing number of my friends in Dubai, where people of nearly 200 nationalities and millions of Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists peacefully co-exist.
One is Amer, a Sunni Muslim from Lebanon who married a Christian, also from Lebanon.
“When we were just dating, it wasn’t an issue at all,” he said. “When I thought about the future, it became a consideration. In Lebanon, the mindset is more closed and interfaith marriages are not the norm, which brings a few challenges because the communities there are segregated in their own life.”
Amer said making one’s own family comfortable with the idea is a challenge in itself but, once accepted, he described the union as “beautiful,” bringing both families and their communities together.
There are perks to this way of life: different religious holidays means more occasions to celebrate all year round, with no arguing over whose family you spend Christmas or Eid breaks with.
“In a country like Lebanon, where these relationships aren’t the norm and where civil war has caused segregation, it’s nice to break those barriers down and bring communities together in the deepest form, which is marriage,” said Amer. “With the UAE celebrating the Year of Tolerance, the leadership here shows that it’s very important for people of different backgrounds, cultures and faiths to integrate seamlessly to become one. If we are divided in culture and faith, then no one benefits, and it’s only when we are all aligned, working toward the same goal that it makes a difference in the community.”
Initially, an interfaith marriage can seem intimidating, but couples speak of quickly adapting. In my experience, communicating right from the start about each other’s beliefs and values was absolutely key. And when it comes to raising children, for example, Amer plans to make them aware of both religions.
“None of the traditions and practices negate the other,” he added. “They’re complementary.”
Amer’s Greek Orthodox wife Eliane agrees, describing her initial concern was more to do with her family and Lebanon’s societal habits. And although she does not consider herself a conservative practicing Christian, she was, nevertheless, raised in a religious environment.
“When we were friends at first, I was trying to understand how he viewed religion, because I see it as a way of living,” said Eliane. “I saw that he was very similar to the way I think and his family too, in terms of values. I liked him a lot, so I thought to myself, ‘What do I want in a man?’ And religion was not at the top of my list.”
A year of dating and almost three years of marriage later, the couple have never been happier.
“I realize now that any fear I had made no sense,” said Eliane. “Nothing changed. It’s not really about religion, it’s about the values and how religion is interpreted.”
She also intends to pass down the best aspects of her religion and to teach the couple’s children to view religion in the same way as she and Amer.
“It differs from person to person, but as long as a couple has the same values, religion doesn’t matter,” she added. “It’s just about how we want to live and our priorities. We didn’t choose to be Christian, we were just born into it, so I hope to see more interfaith marriages because of my own experience.”
There are many qualities, such as tolerance, understanding, patience and kindness, that I consider much more essential than religion for a successful marriage. Although I am just in the first months of my own interfaith marriage, if our relationship up to now is any indication, I have made the right choice.
Featured image Caline Malek and her husband Fares