Interfaith couples go to Cyprus to wed

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NICOSIA, Cyprus

The two couples had never met each other, and probably never would. They had come from opposite sides of a border between longtime enemies.

But Elie Wakim and Nada Ghamloush from Lebanon, and Dimitri Stafeev and Olga Zaytseva from Israel, had a problem in common: Belonging to different religions, neither couple could get married in their home country and had to fly to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus for their nuptials.

In the Middle East, civil marriage doesn’t exist, and no religious authority will officiate at an interfaith wedding. Lebanon and Israel are different in that they recognize civil marriages as long as they are performed abroad, and the closest venue abroad is Cyprus, 150 miles from Lebanon and 230 miles from Israel.

So this little island, which claims to be the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, has made mixed marriages something of an industry. Its municipalities charge an average $415 for express processing and $190 for others, while travel agencies in both Lebanon and Israel offer packages including travel, luxury hotel, marriage fees and flowers for the bride.

Last year, by Cyprus government count, 523 couples from Lebanon and 1,533 from Israel were married here.

Mr. Wakim, 39, and Ms. Ghamloush, 33, met at work, fell in love and decided to marry. Their problem was, he’s a Maronite Christian, she’s of the Bahai faith. So Cyprus was their best bet.

Their wedding at City Hall in Nicosia, the capital, was quick and unadorned. A photocopier next to the Wedding Room whirred and creaked as municipal workers handled paperwork. The groom slipped outside for a quick smoke in the parking lot.

Then the marriage officer arrived, recited his lines in English, and the couple exchanged vows. It was over in 10 minutes.

They snapped a few photos of themselves on the steps of City Hall, then hurried off to finish the paperwork. They were catching a 40-minute flight back to Beirut that evening.

Many other couples stay on to honeymoon on the island, a sunny, laid-back escape from their high-stress lives back home at the center of the Mideast conflict. One such couple is Dimitri Stafeev and Olga Zaytseva, two 29-year-olds of Russian descent who live in a town near Jerusalem.

He’s Jewish and she’s a Russian Orthodox Christian, so they couldn’t marry in Israel unless one of them converted to the other’s faith. Converting to Judaism is a long process of study and ritual, and can be especially difficult for immigrants from the former Soviet Union who may have grown up with no religious education.

Mr. Stafeev and Ms. Zaytseva were married this month near the seaside city of Larnaca, in a century-old mansion renovated by the municipality with carpets and antique furniture to serve as a suitably romantic backdrop.

In Israel, the Orthodox rabbis who control marriage and divorce argue that their strict definition of Jewishness - it passes only through the mother - is vital to preserve the unity of a long-persecuted people, and to spare the offspring of mixed marriages from inheriting similar problems when their time comes to marry.

Clerics are just as firm in Lebanon, whose Muslim and Christian populations subdivide into 18 officially recognized religious groups.

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