Historically, religious groups in Lebanon have enjoyed a prominent position in the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres. Even before the establishment of Lebanon as a state in 1920, or as an independent country in 1943, religious minorities played a leading role in forming the state and in shaping the Lebanese collective consciousness. 

The Lebanese constitution, as stated in Articles 22, 24, and 95, as well as political custom, ensure the representation of recognized religious groups in public administrations, public offices, parliament, and government. In addition, these religious groups enjoy autonomy in managing their own affairs, and the right to their own personal status laws.  

The 18 religious communities recognized by the state[1] enjoy special laws that enable them to establish their own schools, teach their own religions, and manage all matters related to personal status. This system applicable in Lebanon today is an extension of the Ottoman Millet system that rulers established to organize their relations with the empire’s religious minorities by granting them some freedom for self-management.

The 1936 decree (L.R. n.60) concerning the organization of religious communities in Lebanon established the personal status law order. According to Human Rights Watch, “The 1936 decree required each religious group to submit its personal status code and trial procedures to the government and the parliament for review and ratification to ensure compliance with the constitution and public order. But while the Christian and Jewish confessions submitted their laws for review, the Sunni confession objected to the requirement, and a later decree was issued stating that the provisions of Decree 60LR did not apply to Muslims”[2]. Therefore, the provisions related to Christians and Jews in the 1951 Law entitled “Powers of Religious Authorities for Christians and Israelites (Jews)” were applied by religious courts and continue to be applied today.

Furthermore, 15 separate personal status laws exist for the 18 officially-recognized religious groups in Lebanon. For instance, Alawites have their own personal status law, entitled “Organization of the affairs of the Alawite Islamic community in Lebanon,” issued in 1995. The Syriac Orthodox have, too, their own law entitled “Syriac Orthodox Personal Status Law” issued in 1949, then renewed and reissued in 1990. Syriac Catholics follow the “Catholic Personal Status” law issued in 1949. These laws are implemented by special religious courts


Many other unrecognized belief minorities exist in Lebanon – including, but not limited to, Ahmadis, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Bahais, as well as agnostics and atheists. Unrecognized belief minorities do not have any rights to establish special courts or educational institutions nor to develop their own personal status laws.  

However, Article 9 of the constitution guarantees these unrecognized religious minorities the right to believe and practice their religion as long as their actions do not conflict with “public order”, which is a vague wording not very clearly defined in Lebanese laws. The article applies to all religious and belief groups as it stipulates the following: “There shall be absolute freedom of conscience. The state in rendering homage to the God Almighty shall respect all religions and creeds and shall guarantee under its protection the free exercise of all religious rites provided that public order is not disturbed.” 

Despite the fact that the last official census was performed in 1932, Lebanon has always been considered an oasis for different religious and belief groups to meet and celebrate their differences. This might have been true during some periods of time, but the great influence that religious groups enjoy has led, in some cases, to the weakness of the state, the emergence of deep nation-wide crises, as well as the rise of major cultural, social, ethical, ideological, and political divisions between individuals belonging to different religious groups. In short, the political practice of the past century paid much attention and power to religious groups, at the expense of individual citizen rights.

Although the 18 religious groups still wield a wide range of influence, often appearing to be stronger than the state and the rule of law (and therefore endangering the concept of equality between individuals), many changes are taking place in Lebanon. In recent years, individuals from different backgrounds are becoming increasingly inclined to reduce the influence and independence of religious groups especially in the political domain and personal status spheres.

Joe Hammoura and Ana Maria Daou

[1] Appendix 1 of Law L.R. n.60 issued on March 13th, 1936 mentions the following recognized religious groups:  Islam: Sunni, Shia, Druze, Alawite, and Ismaili;  Christianity: Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Latin Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Coptic, Chaldean, Assyrian, and Protestant; the Jewish community. 
[2] https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/01/19/unequal-and-unprotected/womens-rights-under-lebanese-personal-status-laws




A short introduction to RMs in Lebanon is available at Minorities and Indigenous People in Lebanon, Minority Rights Group International

Darwich, M. (2014). الأقليات في لبنان والخوف على المصير, Al Jinan, 5, [only in arabic, trans. Minorities in Lebanon and Fear for their Fate]

Estephan S. (2019). Protection of religious minorities in a multi-confessional Lebanon: religious and state identity, in I. Caracciolo and U. Montuoro (eds). Protection of cultural and religious minorities, Torino, Giappichelli, 145-153

Nammour J. (2007), Les identités au Liban, entre complexité et perplexité, Cités 29, pp. 49-58

Taskin, Y. (2020). Lebanon: Confessionalism and the Problem of Divided Loyalties, in A. Triandafyllidou, & T. Magazzini (eds.), Routledge Handbook on the Governance of Religious Diversity, Abingdon, Routledge



Data source: Todd M. Johnson and Brian J. Grim, eds., World Religion Database (Leiden/Boston: Brill, accessed August 2021)
Religion Pop 2020 RM Pct% 2020 Total Pop.
Ahmadis N/A N/A  
Alawites 50.847 0.74%  
Jehovah's Witnesses   N/A N/A    
Syriac Christians 34.552 0.51%