TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Lebanese officials and religious figures mobilized Saturday to prevent a renewal of tensions in the northern city of Tripoli after unknown assailants torched a historic library owned by a Greek Orthodox priest.
Civil Defense teams struggled to put out the flames which engulfed the bookstore owned by Father Ibrahim Srouj in the old Serail neighborhood in the city, turning one of Lebanon's most renowned libraries into rubble.
Unknown assailants torched Al-Saeh library, destroying "two thirds of some 80,000 books and manuscripts housed there,” AFP reported.
The attack came after rumors circulated in the city, Lebanon’s second largest, that Srouj wrote an article published on the internet insulting Islam and the Prophet Mohammad.
Tripoli figures scrambled to contain the situation with Internal Security Forces Brig. Imad Ayyoubi holding a news conference to deny the allegation against Srouj.
"Father Srouj has nothing to do with the article and the source of the website is from Denmark and was published on Jan. 7, 2010,” Ayyoubi said in Tripoli Serail.
"Whoever seeks to incite strife in Tripoli is destined for imprisonment similar to those who carried out the attack,” he added, noting that the perpetrators were known without naming them.
Salafist Sheikh Salem al-Rafei also attended the conference, defending the Greek Orthodox priest and asked security forces to prosecute the instigators rather than the executors of the attack.
“I call on [security agencies] to prosecute those who incited, ordered and issued a fatwa in favor of the attack rather than the fervent boys who carried out the attack,” Rafei said.
“We are against any strife in Tripoli especially in these circumstances,” he added.
"The Syrian regime seeks to show that Muslims in Tripoli are extremists and don't accept other people and that it [the Damascus regime] can [alone] protect minorities,” Rafei said.
Tripoli MP Robert Fadel condemned the attack and said the perpetrator was known.
“The security agencies know the perpetrator and should arrest him ... there will be no political cover for anyone,” Fadel told reporters at the conference.
Civil society groups and activists gathered at the old-age library in Tripoli in solidarity with Srouj as they collected money for renovations, vowing to rebuild the library “better than it was.”
The priest who arrived later to the conference declined to comment but he was quoted by local media as saying that he forgave the attackers and that he prayed for peace in his hometown of Tripoli.
Ashraf Rifi, former head of the Internal Security Forces who hails from Tripoli, said the attack was a result of rumors that Srouj had published a study on the internet insulting the Prophet.
In a statement condemning the attack, Rifi defended Srouj and said a foreigner unrelated to the Greek Orthodox priest had written the report.
"This criminal act poses several questions on the party behind it that aims at damaging coexistence in the city and ruining its reputation,” he added.
The Lebanese police launched an investigation into the incident.
Former PM Fouad Siniora also condemned the attack, saying the perpetrators only served Lebanon's enemies.
"Whoever did this is doing a favor for the enemies of Lebanon and of coexistence ... with the aim of damaging Tripoli's image depicting it as a city of extremism," Siniora said in a statement.
Tripoli has seen an escalation of sectarian attacks between Alawites, who support President Bashar Assad, against their pro-Syrian rebels neighbors, resulting in 18 rounds of clashes since the uprising in Syria began in 2011.
Several Alawites have also been a target of attacks in the northern city as many were shot and wounded in broad daylight.