BEIRUT (AP) — A Lebanese presidential decree to naturalize hundreds of foreigners, including Iraqi Vice President Iyad Allawi and other regional elites, has ignited a row over who deserves citizenship in this tiny Mediterranean country, where one in four people is a refugee and women married to foreigners cannot pass on their citizenship to their children.

News of the decree, which was signed in secret in mid-May but leaked to the public two weeks later, has fueled the perception that citizenship, like so many other liberties in this country, is a privilege reserved for the wealthy.

Meanwhile, Lebanese women married to foreigners don't have the right to pass on their nationality to their children. And more than a million Syrian and Palestinian refugees toil away in vital but back-breaking labor, without any legal protections against abuse, wage theft, arbitrary arrest and deportation.

"This decree should rattle our conscience," said May Elian, a Lebanese woman married to a foreigner and an activist with the campaign "My Nationality is My Right and My Family's Right."

But Prime Minister Saad Hariri has defended the decree, saying it is the president's constitutional right to grant citizenship to whomever he pleases.

Customarily Lebanon's presidents have waited until the end of their terms to issue a naturalization decree. In this case, President Michel Aoun signed an order less than two years into his six-year term, and without disclosing it to the public, raising suspicions of malfeasance in this corruption-ridden country.

Hariri and Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, who co-signed the decree, challenged opponents to make their claims in court that some of the recipients were less than deserving.

"People who have evidence should present it," said Machnouk.

As opposition to the decree gained steam, the General Security intelligence agency took the unusual step of calling on citizens to call or email with any information they had about the people set to be naturalized.

Some politicians have alleged that the beneficiaries include businessmen linked to the government in neighboring Syria, though this was not immediately clear from the published list.

Legislator Wael Abu Faour, a harsh critic of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, said "it is not acceptable that Lebanese citizenship becomes a commodity sold to killers and their assistants."

Such claims come at a delicate time when Lebanese politicians are still sharply divided over relations with Assad's government as it has become clear he has emerged victorious after seven years of civil war.

Meanwhile, the leading parties are pressuring refugees to return to Syria, while the United Nations and international donors say the war-torn country is still not ready.

Aoun's party, the Free Patriotic Movement, made repatriation a ballot box issue in elections on May 6, insinuating the overwhelmingly Muslim Syrian refugees were a threat to Lebanon's Christian community.

Many struggling Syrians are quietly bitter that Lebanon is welcoming elites while turning its back on the laborers and menial workers who work long hours for little pay in Lebanon's grossly unequal economy.

"The big people get citizenship, and the little guys, nobody looks after them," said Mohammad Naasan, a 40-year-old Syrian hairdresser in Beirut.

The decree has also galled campaigners who have pushed hard to have Lebanon reform its discriminatory personal status laws, which grant men wide-ranging rights over women, including the right to pass on their nationality to their children, while mothers cannot.

"Lebanese women work, they pay taxes — is there anything the Lebanese woman does not do? Why this injustice against her?" said Elian, whose husband is Egyptian.

Elian says she sometimes gets asked with derision if she met her husband at a gas station, reflecting the stereotype that Egyptians staff the stations in Lebanon. Her husband is a top U.N. regional official coordinating the humanitarian response for Syria.

Lebanon's political class since the 1950s has historically refrained from naturalizing foreigners and refugees en masse on the grounds that it would upset Lebanon's delicate sectarian balance. Many fear such steps could re-ignite the country's explosive mix of Christian and Muslim sects that left 150,000 people dead during the 1975-90 civil war.

Although Christians make up a third of the country's 4.5 million people, parliament and Cabinet seats are equally divided between Christians and Muslims.

The exception was a sweeping decree in 1994 that granted citizenship to more than 100,000 residents, which is still talked about today.

But Lebanon is struggling to jump-start its sputtering economy and the country is sorely in need of capital to finance its voracious appetite for credit. Lebanon has one of the highest debt ratios in the world, standing at 150 percent of the gross domestic product.

Prime Minister Hariri said those named in the decree include business leaders who have invested in Lebanon.

"What are we trying to tell the world? We brought some people who deserve the citizenship and then we tell them no?" he said.

Among those named in the decree are the children of Syria's former Minister of Higher Education, Hani Murtada, who has considerable business interests in Syria, and Jordan's May Talal Abu Ghazaleh, daughter of the one of the most prominent businessmen in the Arab world who started out in life as a Palestinian refugee after Israel was created in 1948 and eventually became a global personality.

There were 407 individuals named on the list, including Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis and Europeans and Americans apparently of Arab origin.