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Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila vow to play on as they battle blasphemy accusations

Byblos International Festival under pressure from local church leaders to cancel musicians' 9 August performance
Musicians Haig Papazian, Carl Gerges and Hamed Sinno of Mashrou' Leila pose for a picture (AFP)
By Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut

Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila has vowed to perform at a planned show in the coastal city of Byblos, despite a backlash and threats stemming from accusations of blasphemy. 

"We plan on continuing as is, and playing at the show, if the situation permits," Mashrou' Leila singer Hamed Sinno told Middle East Eye. "This whole thing is very upsetting, and very obviously rooted in blatant lies."

Sinno added that State Security, which answers to both Lebanon's president and prime minister, has already opened an investigation into the allegations. 

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Sinno currently resides in New York, the rest of his band reside in Lebanon.

Over the past few years, the band has gained international acclaim, amassing millions of fans in the Middle East and around the world. 

The musicians have been playing to audiences across Lebanon and the region. 

However, their scheduled appearance at the Byblos International Festival on 9 August has come under fire, with church leaders in the local town and an online campaign calling for their appearance to be cancelled.

The Maronite Catholic Eparchy of Byblos said in a statement that the band “directly opposes the Christian faith, religious values, and human morals”.

'The Mashrou’ Leila show … will spread promiscuity, corruption, and violating all that is holy'

- Father Camille Moubarak

Mashrou’ Leila, whose frontman Sinno is openly gay, is renowned for its open support for LGBTQ+ rights across the Middle East and opposition to sectarianism. The musicians have faced accusations of Satanism as a result.

The most recent controversy around the group stems from old social media posts by the musicians, including one deemed offensive to the Christian faith.

Father Camille Moubarak, a priest in the historic Mediterranean town, said in a Facebook post: "I call on the sons of Byblos and Lebanon to boycott the Mashrou’ Leila show… that will spread promiscuity, corruption, and violating all that is holy."  

One senior clergyman, Father Abdo Abu Kasm, said the church is prepared to take the matter to court.

"I contacted Byblos’ members of parliament and other Christian officials, and I told them that this [concert] poses a danger to our community," he told Voice of Lebanon Radio. "We won’t let this go through."

Online, the campaign is being led by a group called Jounoud al-Rab – Arabic for the Lord’s Army. The group, along with other social media users, have cited several memes shared by Sinno that they claim mock the Christian and Muslim faiths.

One meme highlighted by Jounoud al-Rab shows a painting of the Virgin Mary with her head replaced by the pop star Madonna.

A meme showing the Virgin Mary with the head of pop star Madonna that Hamed Sinno shared (Screenshot)
A meme showing the Virgin Mary with the head of pop star Madonna that Hamed Sinno shared (Screenshot)

"Insulting the Virgin Mary is a low that nobody can get out of," Jounoud al-Rab said, citing the band’s advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights across the region.

"Pope Francis called on us to support homosexuals and help them recover, not to promote homosexuality and slander the mother of God."

The outcry against the band often crossed into outright threats of violence.

Philippe Seif, a popular vlogger and advocate of the right-wing Maronite Kataeb Party, said in a post that the band's "legs should be broken before they try to set foot in Byblos", adding that the musicians have insulted both Islam and Christianity.

‘Respecting all faiths and their symbols’

Mashrou’ Leila, meanwhile, condemned what they called a "defamatory campaign".

"We are four Lebanese men from different faiths bonded by our love of music and studying architecture at the American University Beirut," the group said in a statement.

"Our goal is to promote our art and shed light on human causes, not more not less… while respecting all faiths and their symbols."

Byblos International Festival, where the band has played twice before, told Middle East Eye that no decision has been made yet about cancelling the group's concert.

'We are four Lebanese men from different faiths bonded by our love of music'

- Mashrou' Leila

"The festival’s senior committee will be meeting as soon as possible to discuss the matter and agree on the next steps," a representative of the festival told MEE.

"For the time being, things are still going as planned."

Despite the intensity of the criticism, some free speech advocates have come to the band's defence. 

"I looked into the song lyrics that were supposedly offensive to Christian values and I have to disagree with the allegations," Jean-Luc Maragel, a Lebanese fan of the band told MEE.

"As for the Madonna meme, Hamed Sinno is free to share whatever meme he wants to on his personal social media page."

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Like other supporters of the band, Maragel has been encouraging people to buy up all the remaining tickets for the show.

Byblos municipality did not return MEE's request for an interview about security measures around the planned concert.

Mashrou’ Leila has had scheduled shows cancelled twice in Jordan, most recently in 2017. The musicians were subsequently banned in Egypt, following a 2017 performance in Cairo where some fans waved rainbow flags symbolising the LGBTQ+ rights movement.

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