BEIRUT: When Nadine Abi Nasr and her Italian fiance Marco decided to have a civil marriage, they turned to a travel agency for help to escape Lebanon’s tangled bureaucracy and strict religious rules. Nadia Travel provided them with a tailor-made package and return tickets for the 30-minute flight to the nearby east Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where the couple tied the knot.
Despite a long-running campaign by civic groups, civil weddings still have no legal basis in Lebanon, a tiny country of around four million people who belong to 18 different religious communities, mainly Christian and Muslim.
The Lebanese authorities recognize civil weddings only if they have been registered abroad, but such ceremonies are banned from taking place inside the country because of strong opposition from religious leaders.
Religious faiths have their own regulations governing marriage, divorce and inheritance, and mixed Christian-Muslim weddings in Lebanon are frowned upon and downright discouraged unless one of the potential spouses converts.
Even just getting married in a traditional religious ceremony to someone with another nationality can be an obstacle course.
“A religious wedding with a foreigner in Lebanon is very complicated,” said Abi Nasr, who is a Lebanese Catholic.
“There was so much paperwork involved. It was such a nightmare and I was fed up even before the marriage,” she said.
So last month Abi Nasr decided to entrust her wedding hopes to Nadia Travel which for the past three years has offered an alternative to Lebanese couples who do not want to say “I do” in front of a priest or sheikh.
“We take care of everything from A-to-Z,” said the company’s director, Guenady Ragi.
“Our clients fly to Cyprus in the morning and can even return the same day, wedding bands on their fingers,” he said.
“Often our clients are divorcees who wish to remarry. Sometimes they are Lebanese who come from different religious backgrounds or Lebanese who want to marry foreigners,” he said.
Ragi said his firm has “married” around 300 couples a year since it launched the weddings package.
His company takes care of the minute details, all the way from Beirut to Larnaca airport in Cyprus and back.
“Our offer includes return tickets, a night at a five-star hotel, transfers on the island, insurance, fees for the visa and the ceremony, witnesses, and even flowers for the bride at Larnaca airport,” he said.
The agency also ensures that the couple have all the necessary paperwork to complete their civil marriage, from divorce certificate to document translations and registration of the wedding in both Lebanon and Cyprus.
Service comes with a smile – and of course also at a cost of $1,900 per couple (1,340 euros) for a two-day return trip.
“The ceremony is quick,” said Jacinthe, a physiotherapist who flew to the island to marry restaurant manager Nagib. “In five minutes we were man and wife,” she said.
Both Nagib and Jacinthe belong to the same faith, but they still travelled to Cyprus to get married as a way of avoiding the traditional obligation of throwing a big and costly wedding party for friends and relatives back home.
Abi Nasr said she sought out the travel firm because they did all the administrative legwork which she could not have accomplished in time herself because of her schedule at the shipping agency where she works.
“If this formula did not exist I probably would not have got married,” she said. “It was so practical. We were even blessed by a priest.”
According to Ragi 1,000 couples from Lebanon get married each year on Cyprus – home of the mythical goddess of love, Aphrodite.
And that can only be good for business.