SIDON, Lebanon: Residents of a Sidon village were shocked to discover Sunday that their church had been sprayed with gunfire overnight, but they and political leaders stressed that the crime would not damage the spirit of coexistence between Muslims and Christians in the district.
Residents of the village of Bqosta were heading to St. Joseph Maronite Church to attend Sunday Mass when Father Youssef Mezher discovered that the glass of a window had been shattered and bullet fragments had struck the main door.
Upon entering the church, Mezher found that a number of seats were damaged as was the altar and a picture of the Virgin Mary. A dead bird was found near the altar while shell casings from a hunting rifle were left in the church’s courtyard.
Despite the damage to the church and the shock of the attack, Bqosta residents insisted that Mezher hold Mass in the church’s backyard.
Walid Mezher, a prominent figure from the village, said residents had been caught off guard.
“We were surprised by what happened because such events have not taken place here for a long time. We coexist with all sects in the area,” he said.
“We consider what happened today a minor incident committed by strangers,” he added, urging all residents in the area to be vigilant.
St. Joseph Church was reconstructed in 1997 after being destroyed in 1985 amid armed clashes between the Lebanese Forces on one side and Palestinian and Lebanese leftist factions on the other. Eventually, residents displaced by the violence of the Civil War returned to the area as well.
The church stands on a hill overlooking the village, and residents have been holding Mass there as they await the end of renovation work on the village’s central church.
Following the incident, a joint force from the Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces arrived and launched investigations under the supervision of the police station of Haret Saida and the Lebanese Army Intelligence.
Nicholas Bu Daher, the acting-governor of the south, Brig. Tareq Abdallah, the head of the Internal Security Forces in the south, Col. Mamdouh Saab, the director of the Army Intelligence office in Sidon and others inspected the damage to the church and were briefed on the incident by Bqosta’s Mayor Jamil Ajram and Mezher.
“It is a minor incident and it is clear that a hunting rifle was used,” Bu Daher told reporters. “All security bodies are doing their job: They dusted for prints and God willing the perpetrators will be found.”
The acting-governor emphasized the attack would not affect relations between Muslims and Christians.
“We stress that this is an area of brotherhood, peace and coexistence ... this coexistence will improve ... thank God no one was hurt,” he added.
Zahrani MP Ali Osseiran, from Speaker Nabih Berri’s parliamentary bloc, along with representatives of Sidon MP Bahia Hariri and Ahmad Hariri, the secretary-general of the Future Movement, all visited the scene in an expression of solidarity with the community. MP Hariri called judicial and security officials in the south to accelerate their efforts to uncover the details of the incident, and called for the establishment a fixed Army post near the church to prevent similar incidents.
Condemning any violence targeting places of worship, Hariri said in a statement that such acts target the unique model of coexistence which Sidon’s district embodies.
For his part, Osseiran condemned the “cowardly” assault, saying it is forbidden to target Christian and Islamic sacred places.
“Attacking the Maronite Church of Bqosta as such is condemned by all the Lebanese who consider Lebanon a country of coexistence and a unique example in the entire Arab region in terms of cooperation, communication and dialogue between all Lebanese sects,” Osseiran said in a statement.
He urged the Army and security forces to propose the harshest punishments for the perpetrators of the act as an example for others who might do something similar.
Zahrani MP Michel Musa, also from Berri’s bloc, telephoned security and judicial officials as well as Bqosta’s mayor, condemning the incident and calling for the capture of those responsible. He said attempts to spark anger would not damage the coexistence of the Sidon district.