BEIRUT: Sectarian tensions in Lebanon soared over the weekend after an ISIS flag was burned in Ashrafieh and churches were graffitied in Tripoli, with local politicians divided over how to react.
A picture of three boys burning Islamic flags that have been adopted by jihad groups – including ISIS and Nusra Front – printed on large pieces of paper was widely circulated on social media Saturday morning.
The incident took place in Ashrafieh’s Sassine Square, a predominantly Christian neighborhood in Beirut, and emerged just a day after ISIS allegedly beheaded Ali al-Sayyed, a Lebanese soldier who was among 29 security personnel captured by Nusra Front and ISIS during five days of fighting in Arsal earlier last month. Some 24 are still being detained.
In an apparent reaction to the flag burning, “The Islamic State is coming” was spray-painted on two of Tripoli’s churches – a Syriac church in Mina and the Mar Mikhael Church in the Qibbeh area. Further, media reports said crosses were burned in Tripoli’s majority Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood Saturday night by a man identified as A.M., who is wanted under multiple arrest warrants, according to Elnashra news agency.
The incidents have prompted debate over the boundaries of freedom of expression in a country battling a regionwide tide of extremism.
Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi has demanded the teens be prosecuted on the grounds that their actions were offensive to Muslims. As well as the full Arabic name for ISIS, the flags that were burned included the Islamic shahada, “There is no god but God, Mohammad is the messenger of God.”
“ISIS has stolen the flag of 1.3 billion Muslims,” Rifi said Sunday before heading into a security meeting. “We will protect our national unity by law. We prevented reactions and our duty is to protect religious symbols.”
His response came a day after he said the religious symbol on the flag “has nothing to do with ISIS its terrorist approach.”
Rifi has asked State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud to follow up on the case, given that Lebanese law punishes acts that disrespect religious symbols and incite sectarian strife. Hammoud has since referred the case to the Criminal Investigation Department to launch an investigation into the Ashrafieh incident.
Rifi announced in a statement early Sunday that he would also take the necessary measures to investigate the incident in which crosses were burned, as such sectarian acts harm national unity. He also assigned Hammoud with follow-up on the case. An investigation into the acts in Tripoli is also underway.
Tourism Minister Michel Pharaon joined Rifi in condemning the burning of the flags.
“We should keep in mind that the fight against extremism is the fight of people, state and Army. It is fought by Muslims and Christians together,” Pharaon said in a statement.
The Christian MP from Ashrafieh warned citizens against falling into the trap of “sectarian provocation” that could spark discord in Lebanon.
“In our unity we will be able to confront terrorism that comes from abroad ... instead of burning any flag, let [citizens] raise the Lebanese flag.”
Nevertheless, Rifi’s call to prosecute the three youths sparked a lot of controversy and criticism, with one MP offering to be the perpetrators’ lawyer should the case make it to court.
“It’s unacceptable to witness our country going after those who are expressing the opinion of many and [tackling] a national case, while it leaves criminals on the run,” said MP Ibrahim Kanaan, a member of the Free Patriotic Movement.
Kanaan announced that he would represent the young men in court once the prosecutor took action.
“I will continue this file until the end and what happened in Ashrafieh is [an act] against terrorism and not against religion.”
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil called on Christian youths to refrain from equating ISIS to Islam, saying the religion had nothing to do with the radical group.
However, he also implicitly criticized Rifi’s decision.
“As for those who burned the flag, it would have been sufficient if we simply directed their attention to it,” he said in a statement.
Kataeb MP Nadim Gemayel cast doubt on the legitimacy of the photograph, claiming that it looked at least three weeks old based on the features of Sassine Square and expressing his fear that this was part of a ploy.
“The [young men] that burned the flag are innocent until proven guilty,” he said when asked about Rifi’s decision, adding that citizens should not get involved in acts “that threaten peace.”