Explainer: Who are the ‘Soldiers of God’ targeting Beirut's queer community?
The paramilitary group is estimated to number around 150 and is notable for its far-right-wing views.
Members are mostly bearded, tattooed men whose social media profiles are dotted with Christian iconography and symbols. The group's logo is a picture of the wings of an angel and a shield decorated with a red cross, all sitting above a bible.
The militia has consistently gone after Lebanon's LGBTQ+ community, accusing it of "promoting homosexuality" and endangering family values in Lebanon.
"They are a fringe Christian group …. they are basically hooligans. Their mission in life is basically to go against LGBTQI+ people," Lea Z, an LGBTQI+ activist, told The New Arab.
Achrafieh's morality police
The first appearance of the Soldiers of God, or Junoud al-Rub, in Arabic, was as a neighbourhood watch group in Achrafieh, Beirut more than a year ago.
The group claimed to conduct patrols to ensure security in the area, especially in the wake of Lebanon's 2019 economic meltdown.
The patrols were reminiscent of the practice of militias self-organising during Lebanon's civil war, where the country's sectarian divisions were enforced by armed groups.
Soldiers of God quickly began employing violence against those who it said threatened Lebanese traditional values.
In June 2022, the group defaced a billboard in Achrafieh, which was decorated with flowers and an LGBTQI+ rainbow flag. Members then accused the LGBT community of promoting "satanism" and of kidnapping children.
Members of the group made similar claims during the attack on Wednesday, 23 August, screaming that the LGBTQI+ friendly bar was a "satanic" place and that "homosexuals were forbidden on this earth."
"Their crusade in life is to 'clean' Achrafieh and this area from any sort of [homosexuality]. And they have weapons, they are armed," Lea Z explained.
The group's insistence that the LGBTQI+ community is connected with a sinister pedophilic conspiracy echoes far-right groups' rhetoric in other countries, such as the US.
The group is also at the forefront of Lebanon's anti-vaxxer movement and is virulently anti-refugee, claiming to protect its community from Syrian and Palestinian refugees.
The far-right ideology espoused by Soldiers of God and other religious extremists in Lebanon should be seen as "connected with the glowing global right-wing threat, similar to what is happening in Europe and US," Ghassan Makarem, an independent activist, told TNA.
"It's part of a rising global right-wing campaign against LGBT people that you see everywhere. But here you have a certain kind of lawlessness that allows people like Junoud al-Rub to exist, attack people, and act like thugs without people questioning them," Makarem said.
Activists have questioned who funds the paramilitary group and how the group is allowed to operate in Achrafieh, where Christian parties generally control the area.
Members of Achrafieh's Christian parties, such as Nadim Gemayel from the Lebanese Kataeb party, were quick to distance themselves from the group after Wednesday's attack.
"The assault that took place yesterday in Mar Mikhayel is rejected and condemned ... Our society must remain a free and open society that respects individual freedoms," Gemayel said on Thursday.
الاعتداء الذي حصل البارحة في مار مخايل مرفوض ومدان…— Nadim Gemayel (@nadimgemayel) August 24, 2023
اذا كان هناك اي خلل او مس بالاداب العامة او السلامة العامة فعلى القوى الامنية حصراً اخذ التدابير اللازمة، منعاً لاي طرف ان ينصب نفسه شرطة آداب.
مجتمعنا يجب ان يبقى مجتمع حر ومنفتح ويحترم الحريات الفردية.
Emboldened by the state
In recent months, Lebanese state officials and religious figures have led a rising wave of hate speech against LGBTQI+ individuals.
Hassan Nasrallah, head of pro-Iran group Hezbollah, said that LGBTQI+ people were a "danger to society" and called for them to be killed in speeches at the end of July.
The Lebanese Minister of Culture responded to Wednesday's attack by questioning why security services did not prevent the bar from "promoting homosexuality" rather than calling for the attackers to be held accountable.
He accompanied his statement with a biblical painting of Archangel Michael striking down a demon.
Tarek Zeidan, the head of LGBTQI+ rights organisation Helem, said that it is this sort of rhetoric that has "emboldened" groups like Junoud al-Rub.
He explained that groups see statements from political entities as a sign that there "will be no repercussions from the law" if they target the LGBTQI+ community.
"We hold the recent increase of rhetoric and inflammatory attacks against the LGBTQ community by several different political entities to be one of the chief reasons that people feel emboldened to do this," Zeidan said.
Several were injured after an extremist Christian militia attacked an LGBTQ-friendly bar in Beirut on Wed night.— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) August 25, 2023
Om Bar Room, in the Mar Mikhael district, was hosting a drag show when "Jnoud el Rab" ("Soldiers of God") surrounded it and intimidated patrons:
🎥: @alexander_durie pic.twitter.com/POMN1lLJTW
According to a statement put out by Amnesty International, while Lebanon's Internal Security Forces (ISF) stopped the militia from entering the bar on Wednesday, they did not stop the attack or arrest any of the assailants.
TNA reached out to the ISF for a comment on how they would be responding to Wednesday's attack and if they had arrested any members of the Soldiers of God militia but did not receive a response.
"Ideally, the Lebanese state should be arresting every single person who created this extremely worrying public attack. That's what happens usually when there's an unprovoked attack on unarmed people by armed people," Zeidan explained.
He added that if religious fanatics like Soldiers of God are allowed to carry out attacks with impunity, it could threaten the very religious and social pluralism that Lebanon treasures.
"If they think it’s just going to stop with LGBTQ people, they're wrong. It might just be the LGBTQ community now, but this is really an attack on freedom of expression and diversity in this country," Zeidan said.