BEIRUT: Around 150 people gathered in Beirut’s Samir Kassir Square Monday to show their support for local band Mashrou’ Leila in light of mounting pressure by Lebanese Christian groups to cancel an upcoming concert.
“This is way bigger than Mashrou’ Leila,” said 22-year-old Marc Ghazali, who attended the protest.
“I think it’s time to acknowledge that we have a lot of young people who want to express ideas that don’t conform to religious teachings and religious beliefs. Regardless if the concert happens or not, we cannot deny this reality,” Ghazali told The Daily Star.
Tensions have been brewing for over a week as the fate of the band’s performance, set for Aug. 9 at the Byblos International Festival, has yet to be decided.
A number of local church leaders have opposed the concert. It has also come under attack in a vicious social media campaign, with one user threatening to stop the band’s performance “by force.”
Lawyer Khaled Merheb filed a complaint Monday with the public prosecutor against four men for alleged threats against the band.
Christian groups and leaders opposed to the performance have cited the religious and sexual ideologies expressed in the band’s lyrics, videos and performances.
Some have pointed to a 2015 Facebook post by lead singer Hamed Sinno of a meme of pop star Madonna’s face superimposed onto that of the Virgin Mary.
The group has played regularly in Lebanon. It participated in the Byblos International Festival in 2010 and 2016, as well as the Baalbeck International Festival in 2012.
The Episcopal Media Committee, a Catholic Church-affiliated body, Monday urged authorities to cancel Mashrou’ Leila’s Byblos concert.
A statement from the committee said the church’s rejection of the concert “is based on what [Mashrou’ Leila] presents in terms of ideas and artistic projects that undermine the faith and religious symbols and distort the image of God as taught by the church.”
The committee’s statement came after it met earlier Monday at the headquarters of the Catholic Information Center in a session chaired by Archbishop Boulos Matar to discuss the issue.
Jbeil Archbishop Michel Aoun also attended the session.
According to the statement, Aoun said two of the band members had admitted during a meeting that some of their songs touched on religious issues and that they had “presented an intention to apologize and readiness to remove what should be removed out of respect for the sentiments of the Christian and Muslim religions in Lebanon.”
It added that the archbishop had expected the band to apologize in a joint news conference, which has yet to take place, and accused the band of stalling.
The statement went on to say that the church “was and still is the first advocate of freedom based on the truth. ... However in the eyes of some, freedom has been transformed into doing anything and saying anything without regard to the human values on which society is based.”
Mashrou’ Leila is no stranger to controversy. Having tackled issues such as homophobia, classism and sectarianism, the band has made its fair share of enemies.
Sinno is openly gay and has advocated for LGBTQ rights in the Middle East.
The endeavor to ban Mashrou’ Leila has been seen by many activists as Lebanon’s most recent attempt to suppress freedom of expression.
“The cancellation of the concert would be one of the most visible and iconic losses we’ve had,” Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, told The Daily Star.
“The Byblos International Festival has been extremely weak,” Mhanna said, adding that the organizers ought to be “showing more courage in defense of an artistic choice.”
The President of the Byblos International Festival Latifeh Lakis said that a decision on the issue would be made by Tuesday at the latest.
Lakis added that meetings had been held with “all parties” in order to come to a conclusion.
Mhanna said he worried that canceling the concert would set a dangerous precedent for more radicalism.
“It will open the door for every time a radical group doesn’t like a play or a book or a movie, to force organizers to ban it,” he said.