Intermarriage: The Cross and The Crescent

BEIRUT, Lebanon — When Rania married Ali, he was not a practicing Muslim and she had long since drifted away from her Maronite faith.

All seemed well when Ali agreed that their daughter, Sandra, be baptized Catholic. But now that Rania has returned to her faith, a terrible strain has been placed on the marriage.

The predicament that Rania and Ali find themselves in is becoming more common in Europe, as well.

In Italy, for instance, demographics have shifted with an influx of Muslim immigrants. And the Italian Bishops Conference recently issued a statement discouraging interfaith marriage between Catholics and Muslims.

“The experience of recent years shows as a general rule to advise against or … to not encourage these marriages,” the Nov. 30 statement said.

The bishops pointed to the “intrinsic fragility of such unions,” the “diverse conceptions” of the institution of marriage and “the different visions of the role of women.”

Like others in this article, Rania and Ali cannot be fully identified by name due to the sensitive nature of the subject.

Ali was against the idea of his daughter’s first Communion but eventually relented.

“Ali didn’t mind me being a Christian when I wasn’t a practicing Christian. But when I had my conversion, it was like I ‘broke the deal,’’’ Rania explained. “To him, it was like he wasn’t married to the same person anymore.”

He worried, too, how his wife’s “fanaticism” would affect their daughter. In an effort to save her marriage, Rania agreed that she would practice her faith in private and not tell Ali about any of her religious activities.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes that in many countries, mixed marriages often occur. “A case of marriage with disparity of cult (between a Catholic and a non-baptized person) requires even greater circumspection” (No. 1633).

The Catechism teaches: “Difference about faith and the very notion of marriage, but also different religious mentalities, can become sources of tension in marriage, especially as regards the education of children. The temptation to religious indifference can then arise” (No. 1634).

It points out that canon law requires “express dispensation” from ecclesiastical authorities in order for a mixed marriage to be valid.

“This … dispensation presupposes that both parties know and do not exclude the essential ends and properties of marriage; and furthermore that the Catholic party confirms the obligations, which have been made known to the non-Catholic party, of preserving his or her own faith and ensuring the baptism and education of the children in the Catholic Church” (No. 1635).

In Lebanon, the Maronite (Catholic) Council of Bishops does not have a formal position regarding interfaith marriages. However, “the Catholic Church warns against Muslim-Catholic marriages because their unity may be in danger because of the different outlook on marriage, as well as opposite attitudes and points of views,’’ said Bishop Roland Aboujaoude, Maronite Patriarchal Vicar General.

As for Ali and Rania, religious differences took a toll on their daughter. She “went to the extreme opposite — hating God — because he was responsible for all the problems in the family, as far as she was concerned,” said Rania. Four years later, Sandra, now 15, still rejects God.

“My main prayer now is that she finds God,” Rania said. “Before my conversion, I used to ask God to keep her well and healthy for me. Now my prayer is, ‘Please, God, let her find you. Let her love you. Let her be for you.’”

Rania admits that had she been stronger in her faith, she never would have married Ali. “It affects you. It affects the children. It affects everything. What compromise can you give? That you will stop loving God? That you will love God only by yourself, but not introduce him to your children?”

And she prays for her husband’s conversion: “Even if he doesn’t have a conversion, God will bless him. One way or another, He will use those prayers. I am sure.’’

Again, the Catechism has something to say in this regard. “In marriages with disparity of cult the Catholic spouse has a particular task: ‘For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband’” (No. 1637), quoting St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians. “It is a great joy for the Christian spouse and for the Church if this ‘consecration’ should lead to the free conversion of the other spouse to the Christian faith. Sincere married love, the humble and patient practice of the family virtues, and perseverance in prayer can prepare the non-believing spouse to accept the grace of conversion.”

A Catholic priest in Lebanon, who prefers not to be identified, said, “In rare cases a Muslim man, without converting, will consent to be married to a Christian girl by a priest. He would have to promise to let her raise the children Christian, which he won’t do most of the time.’’

He said he knew of only two cases in which a Muslim husband has consented to this, but both were well educated and not practicing Muslims.

“If later on, through pressure of his family or by an onslaught of Muslim piety, the man begins to take his religion more seriously, he will try to prove this by bullying his wife for all to see. This is a mark of piety,” explained the priest. “Anyway, it is partly cultural. Being brought up in a Muslim culture, a boy generally cannot ever imagine a woman being his equal.”

For women married to Muslim men, keeping the faith can be a struggle.

Carol, an American who is married to a Muslim in Lebanon, believes it is important for Christians to “have the armor of God, the helmet of faith and to be able to defend our faith by knowing the Bible, inside out.”

“The more you are aware and are able to defend your faith,” she said, “the more people respect you.”

The situation may be more dire still for women who don’t have a strong faith to begin with. Intermarriage makes it extremely difficult for their faith ever to come to maturity.

When Lena first met her husband 41 years ago in England, she didn’t even realize that he was Muslim.

In her native Italy, almost everyone was Catholic. “I didn’t even know what a mosque was.”

When Lena and Ahmed began dating, it was Ahmed who had posed the question: “Don’t you pray?”

“It was important to him that I believe in something,” recalled Lena. She began to ask Ahmed about his faith.

“He gave me the Koran and I stayed in the house for two days reading it. I saw that Muslims believe in the Virgin Mary.”

Three months later, Lena and Ahmed were married. It was Lena who suggested they be wed in a civil ceremony. A year after their marriage, the couple moved to Ahmed’s homeland, Lebanon.

“My parents always told my sisters and me growing up that children should take on the same religion as the father,” Lena said. “Little did they know that we would all end up in mixed marriages.” Lena’s sisters married Protestants.

“I always have explained to my children that they are Muslim. For them, religion is a personal thing,” Lena said.

Recently, while crossing herself in the car, her small grandson expressed surprise. Lena explained to him that she does not pray in the same way as his grandfather.

He said, the whole thing was outside the boy’s experience. “You do like the cross on the church.”

Doreen Abi Raad writes

from Bikfaya, Lebanon.