Bishop: no ‘justification’ for establishing independent church in Maronite area.
August 22 (Compass Direct News) -- Maronite Catholics attacked a newly-built, independent Baptist church near Beirut this month, mauling churchgoers preparing to host war refugees from southern Lebanon.
The violence flared up after of several weeks of tense public debate between Maronite and Baptist clergy. The Maronite Church is an Eastern Rite church in communion with Rome.
More than 20 men from Ajaltoun village attacked Christ Bible Baptist Church on August 2, slashing car tires, breaking the church door and windows, stealing computer and sound equipment, beating men and groping several women.
A group of 10 Maronite men assaulted Baptist Pastor Raymond Abou-Mekhael and another church member at 6:30 p.m. as they were on their way to retrieve items from their parked cars. The Maronites broke the unidentified church member’s rib and both men’s glasses, smashed the car windows and then dumped the two men inside before joining another group of 10 in attacking the church building.
“Police were at the church watching everything,” Abou-Mekhael, 35, told Compass. “They even advised the attackers on what to steal and vandalize.”
Abou-Mekhael said that the men were led by Ajaltoun Mayor Khalil Tabet, who had the church officially sealed off with “red wax” immediately after the attack so that no one could enter the building.
In an August 6 newspaper article entitled, “No Justification for Building a Baptist Church in a Region whose Overwhelming Majority is Maronite,” the local Maronite bishop attacked the Baptist church’s right to exist.
Bishop Guy-Paul Noujaim wrote in local newspapers that there were “no followers of the Baptists in Ajaltoun,” and the “decrees of the Middle East Council of Churches [to which the church does not belong] prohibit building a church in areas without followers therein.”
In an e-mail to Compass, Bishop Noujaim said that the Baptist congregation had requested a permit to build a residence but had instead built a church. He declined to answer questions about whether he had been aware of plans to attack the church on August 2, but said that he had been celebrating mass at a church in the mountains when he received a telephone call alerting him to the violence.
In articles published in Addiyar and Annahar newspapers, the bishop called for the attorney general to close down the building.
“This is nonsense,” said Salim Sahyouni, President of the High Council of Evangelical Churches in Syria and Lebanon, to which the Ajaltoun Baptist church belongs. “We can worship in a legal church building, we can worship in an apartment and we can worship in the free air.”
As a Protestant community in Lebanon, “we have the full rights to build churches to worship freely in any place we choose,” Sahyouni told Compass. “We do not need to get permission.”
In his written responses to Compass, Bishop Noujaim did not specify why it was illegal to hold church services in a home but claimed that the Baptists were violating the law by owning a printing press in the basement of their building.
The bishop’s biggest complaint was that the Baptists aimed to steal Maronite members of his flock.
“Why don’t the Baptists want to be part of the Middle East Council of Churches?” the bishop wrote, referring to an ecumenical council of Orthodox, Catholic and certain Protestant churches that he said forbids proselytizing each other’s members. “Don’t they support ecumenism and dialogue? If we are mistrustful of the Baptist people, it is because of their bad behavior.”
The bishop did not respond to questions about whether individuals in Ajaltoun had the right to change their religious affiliation.
Sealed church doors
Abou-Mekhael told Compass today that the church remains officially sealed, and that he is in the process of filing a case against the attackers. He also said that his congregation of approximately 80 people is ready to open a second case if they are denied their constitutional right to worship at the site.
“Even if we get permission to remove the red wax, there are still threats from the mayor and from the bishop that if we go to worship they will attack again,” the pastor told Compass. “By the constitution of Lebanon, we have the freedom to worship there. But they say, ‘Okay, go try to practice your rights, but we will stop you.’”
In light of Lebanon’s deeply entrenched ethnic and religious divides, it is not uncommon for government officials to carry deeper loyalties for their particular community leaders than for the central government and civil law.
“In this type of community, the bishop would always be consulted in a matter [of building a new church],” one local source close to the Maronite church told Compass. Requesting anonymity for security reasons, he said, “All it would take is one word from the bishop for the place to be opened. But they’ve never had a Protestant Reformation in the Middle East, so they don’t know quite what to do with these new evangelical groups.”
The source added, “It’s not to say that the bishop is right, but one has to understand that Lebanon has a very tribal society.”
“Our problem is not with the Maronite church, it’s with this bishop,” Abou-Mekhael told Compass. “Our church, founded in 1995, had been meeting in a rented facility in the town of Ballouneh before this, and we had no problems there. All of my Maronite neighbors and friends are saddened by what is happening.”
Bishop Noujaim said the conflict is not just religious but political. “Why do the Baptists want to settle in a patriarchal diocese?” he said. “Do they want to weaken the Maronite patriarchate by stealing some believers and further dividing the Christian community, which has already suffered in this way?”
Dropping birth rates and emigration have caused a decrease in Lebanon’s Maronite population in recent years. For many, this translates into a weakening of political power. According to estimates, approximately 20 percent of the Lebanese population (half of Lebanon’s Christians) belong to the Maronite Church.
Upon gaining independence in 1943, Lebanon’s Christian community, mainly Maronite, constituted more than 50 percent of the country’s population, playing a significant role in bolstering Maronite representation in the central government vis-Ã -vis other religious and ethnic groups.
“Christians in the Middle East are so few that we need each other,” Abou-Mekhael commented. “We need to support each other. It’s really too bad what has happened, because we were preparing the building to help host refugees from the south.”
A 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah troops in southern Lebanon ended in an official ceasefire on August 14, allowing hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Lebanese to begin returning home. Triggered by the Hezbollah kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers on July 12, the fighting claimed more than 1,000 Lebanese and 150 Israeli lives.
Mounting Tensions Erupt in Strife in Mountain Village
Tension over the newly-built Christ Bible Baptist Church had been mounting since April 2006, when the congregation legally purchased the building from Pastor Raymond Abou-Mekhael and requested that the Ajaltoun government construct signs along the path to the church.
Abou-Mekhael told Compass he had purchased the land in 2004 and had built the building in the interest of using it for the church.
The mayor’s office informed the Baptist congregation that it would need to consult Bishop Guy-Paul Noujaim before granting permission to place the signs.
On July 17, Mayor Khalil Tabet met Abou-Mekhael and three Baptist members, telling them to close down the building because Bishop Noujaim did not want another evangelical church in the area. According to Abou-Mekhael, Tabet threatened to bring a mob to forcibly shut down the church the next Sunday.
Undeterred, the Baptist congregation began giving out invitations for the church’s official commencement on Sunday, July 23.
In response, Maronite villagers distributed fliers calling on the townspeople to gather the following Sunday (July 23) at 4 p.m. to march together to the Baptist church and “deny its commencement.”
Written in Bishop Noujaim’s name and also broadcast on local television, the flier claimed that the church had been built “deceptively and in crooked ways,” and that it was “the right of the church and civil authorities to deny it in all ways.”
Visiting the village to celebrate mass on Saturday evening (July 22), Bishop Noujaim reiterated his call for the townspeople to stop the church commencement, village priest Paul Sfeir said in the Addiyar newspaper.
“I went to Ajaltoun church to inform people that the Baptists are not a Catholic church,” the bishop told Compass, sidestepping questions about whether it was true that he had asked the townspeople to march on the Baptist church.
Bishop Noujaim also failed to say why he had not called police to stop the meeting if it was indeed being held illegally as he claimed.
Bulldozer moving rocks to bar passage
Earlier that day (July 22), Tabet had hired a bulldozer to block the Baptist church road and the building’s front gate with piles of rocks. Police were unable to halt the excavation after Tabet presented them with a document from city hall, authorizing the roadwork.
Tabet assaulted Abou-Mekhael when he came out of the church to talk with the police, breaking the pastor’s glasses before police restrained him, Abou-Mekhael said. The pastor also claimed that Tabet had one of his men enter church property and steal security cameras.
On the Sunday of the Baptist church’s commencement, a crowd of Maronite villagers threw rocks at the church and tried to force their way into the building to disrupt the morning service. Police, who had been notified of the potential violence, blocked the group from entering but asked the Baptists to cut their meeting short and leave before any blood was shed.
In an Addiyar article on Monday, July 24, village priest Sfeir accused the church of printing “Jehovah’s Witness publications and books, secretly and unlawfully.” He also said that interior security forces had kicked the Baptists out of town the previous day.
To back up Sfeir’s claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses were controlling the Baptist church, Addiyar falsely reported that Evangelical High Council President Salim Sahyouni had confirmed that the Baptist church in Ajaltoun was “not a member of the Evangelical Sect.”
The paper later printed a response from the board of the Council of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Lebanon, refuting the false claim that the Baptist church was controlled by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Sahyouni also confirmed in the article that the Ajaltoun Baptist church was an active member of the Council of Evangelical Baptist Churches.
In an attempt to smooth out their differences, Abou-Mekhael said that he met with Bishop Noujaim on July 28. According to Abou-Mekhael, the bishop first told him that the only solution was for his congregation to leave the area, but that eventually they reached an agreement whereby the building would be registered as a private residence in which “a group of people regularly meet.”
Bishop Noujaim told Compass that he was uncertain that any agreement had been reached, but said that the Baptists promised not to hold services in the building until they had had some time to reflect on the issue.
Villagers attacked the church again on the evening of August 2 while members of the Baptist congregation were preparing the building to host war refugees from southern Lebanon.
Copyright Â© 2006 Compass Direct