Faith and fear in Lebanon: A shrinking space for LGBTQ+ rights
June was supposed to be a month dedicated to celebrating LGBTQ+ people worldwide.
While this remains true in parts of the West, where festivities expanded into street parades, concerts, and cultural events, in Lebanon and the Middle East at large, pride is kept under wraps for safety and security concerns.
In Beirut, organisers of Beirut Pride had placed a flower billboard in the predominantly Christian neighbourhood of Achrafieh.
Donned the ‘Blooming Billboard’, it started off as greenery that slowly bloomed into rainbow-coloured flowers with the message ‘love always blooms’ written underneath.
On 25 June, members of a Christian religious group calling themselves the ‘Soldiers of God’ filmed themselves tearing down the installation as they quoted verses from the bible and asserted that “There will be no Satan in Achrafieh - this neighbourhood is for the soldiers of God”.
This comes amidst a series of homophobic attacks and government crackdowns on LGBTQ+ events, prompting activists and human rights experts to warn against a shrinking atmosphere of freedom and tolerance for Lebanon’s LGBTQ+ community.
"On 25 June, members of a Christian religious group calling themselves the 'Soldiers of God' filmed themselves tearing down a rainbow flower billboard in Beirut"
Who are the Soldiers of God?
According to core member and founder of the group, Joseph Mansour, 'Soldiers of God' is meant to be a bible study group that has no activities, nor meetings on the ground.
"We only meet up to go to church or chat on the phone about bible verses. We don't hold meetings to organise our movements nor to plan future steps," Mansour told The New Arab.
The founder says that the billboard incident was a spontaneous act and not pre-planned. He claims that their core mission is to spread the Lord's message through preaching and direct communication, without the involvement of physical altercations.
"We received a lot of backlash over just removing a rainbow billboard? We never threatened the community nor did we attack individuals directly. We merely acted on God's teachings and removed a sign we believe is satanic," Mansour said.
However, Maya, a queer activist whose name has been changed, considers the attack a clear sign of intimidation that sent a threatening message to LGBTQ+ people residing in the area.
"They preach about peace and love, yet they show violence in words and actions? They could have communicated with us in peace if they had concerns over the billboard, there was no need for all the upheaval," Maya told The New Arab.
The name ‘Soldiers of God’, according to the founder, comes from a common saying amongst devoted Christians who counter evil with the word of God.
The group was founded in 2020 when neighbourhood friends came together to revise bible verses and receive religious insight on daily life, he adds.
An anonymous source close to the group told The New Arab that members from all walks of life, such as journalists, doctors, lawyers, and even public figures have joined in the last couple of years.
The source says that the group operates on four WhatsApp groups that circulate voice notes of bible readings and is open for any member of the public to join.
Furthermore, rumours circulating that the group was spearheaded by a member of parliament and banker Antoun Sehnaoui were false, the source claims, as only a few members worked as Sehnaoui's bodyguards.
On the other hand, local media reports suggest that some members are sympathisers of the Christian Lebanese Forces party, evident on their social networks plastered with the party's logo and photos of Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces' leader.
The religious group also targets Palestinian and Syrian refugees in their speeches under the pretence of defending Christian lands.
"The backlash painted the Soldiers of God as a Christian terrorist group. This is false since members are instructed to follow Jesus Christ’s teachings which dictate to leave the punishment to God," the source said.
Mansour says he expected the public uproar and was not interested in ratifying the aggressive image donned to the group.
"We know they [the LGBTs] exist and we know their places. We never once approached them and we won't. We just wish they would not approach us with their public displays of homosexuality and respect the sanctity of our Christian neighbourhood," he said.
"There are a million ways to express religious disapproval so why choose to promote hate speech and violence against us? This is the first time I feel this uncomfortable living in Lebanon"
A spiritual jihad
The fight by religious conservatives against the LGBTQ+ community is an ongoing process worldwide.
Mansour argues that the West is "too far gone" due to its adherence to "the gay agenda" - a rhetorical strategy deployed by religious conservative groups that accuse the LGBTQ+ community of strategising to recruit children into their deviant lifestyle to convert them from “straights” to "queers". The group's calling, therefore, is to try and "save Lebanon".
"Imagine your child sees a giant rainbow billboard and starts asking questions. How will you then explain gay marriage? It's unnatural," Mansour said.
The group believes the use of the rainbow to be a direct attack on the Christian faith and denounces its appropriation from the bible verse Genesis 9:11-17.
The rainbow pride flag was first designed by gay rights activist Gilbert Baker in 1978 to symbolise the LGBTQ+ community's fight for equal rights and acceptance across the globe.
The colours of the rainbow correspond with the diversity present in the community, which transcends borders, race, and sexual orientation.
"There are other things to worry about other than a flag," Maya asserts. "We mind our own business and fight for our rights in a very limited capacity. All our activities are for adults only, no child was ever involved."
Although they reject being labelled "extremists", Mansour says they will be against all attempts to "indoctrinate children in public spaces and educational institutions, similarly to the West".
He adds that the LGBTQ+ community should re-direct its hatred towards "less tolerant religious groups that would certainly launch violent attacks at the community".
But with LGBTQ+ people long denied social and legal protections in Lebanon, the image of the 'soldiers' yelling at them on the streets perpetuates the idea that they are not safe in their own country, Maya asserts.
"At the moment, the LGBTQ+ community is heavily distressed and fearful"
From 2012 to 2016, the number of arrests under article 534 which criminalises homosexuality jumped from 43 to 76. Human Rights Watch reported that since 2017, Lebanese security forces have regularly interfered with human rights events related to gender and sexuality.
On 25 June, Lebanon's outgoing Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi ordered the country's security forces to break up gatherings held by the community after being pressured by religious figures under the unlawful pretence that these gatherings will "promote homosexuality", which is "a violation of the habits and traditions".
A few hours later, Lebanon's top Sunni religious figure, Mufti Sheikh Abdel Latif Derian, released a statement saying that Dar Al-Fatwa (the highest Sunni authority in Lebanon) "would not allow the legalization of homosexuality or civil marriage".
All events were then cancelled and a protest in front of the headquarters of the Interior Ministry in Beirut was organised to combat the government's decision.
Shortly after, however, organisers started receiving death threats and calls for counter-demonstrations, which put the participants' lives at risk, and the demonstration was postponed as a result.
The next day, a Facebook page by the name of ‘Men of Tabbeneh’, a neighbourhood in Tripoli, incited violence against queer-friendly spaces in the city and against individuals who spoke out against the Sunni Mufti.
Meanwhile, a local chips company issued a statement declaring that it will no longer use a rainbow on its packaging so as to not be associated with the LGBTQ+ community.
Maintaining a low profile amidst the chaos
At the moment, the LGBTQ+ community is heavily distressed and fearful, Maya asserts.
"There are a million ways to express religious disapproval so why choose to promote hate speech and violence against us? This is the first time I feel this uncomfortable living in Lebanon," she said.
Rasha Younes, a researcher with the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, asserts that the minister's decision sends a chilling message to LGBTQ+ people affirming that their government will throw away their fundamental rights in the face of pressure from religious groups.
This reinforces the idea that safe spaces are shrinking in light of governmental monitoring of events and gatherings.
"This sets a dangerous precedent for determining governance according to vague principles that threaten the rule of law," Younes told The New Arab. "The authorities should immediately annul the ban."
She adds that the arbitrary attacks on the community will persist so long as the government scapegoats LGBTQ+ people to distract the public from its failures.
In light of the new government formation process, Wadih Al Asmar, President of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, argues that the Minister of Interior's unlawful decision could be interpreted as an attempt to be reinstated in the upcoming government, evident in a leaked document of the draft line-up allegedly handwritten by Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
"Some politicians use the backing of religious authorities to impress the public and remain in power," Al Asmar told The New Arab.
Regarding upcoming events and gatherings, Bertho Makso, director of the humanitarian NGO, Proud Lebanon, says that to ensure the community's safety, events must remain under wraps.
"Some politicians use the backing of religious authorities to impress the public and remain in power"
"Society is not ready for this kind of public exposure so we must watch our wording and try to bury the lede when publicising LGBTQ+ events on social media," Makso told The New Arab.
Prior to the government crackdowns, Proud, in collaboration with other NGOs and civil society movements, was working to collect the necessary number of signatures in parliament to demand the end of Article 534.
However, the NGO is currently uncertain whether the latest commotion will push parliamentarians to denounce the law entirely.
"We received information that the Sunni Mufti was under the impression that we're aiming to legalise same-sex marriage, which is why he attacked the community in the first place," Makso said.
"Nevertheless, we're aware that same-sex marriage is off the table and we would not advocate for it in light of our current society. Our only aim is to protect people's dignities and legal rights as dictated in the constitution."
Dana Hourany is a multimedia journalist based in Beirut.
Follow her on Twitter: @DanaHourany