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Mashrou' Leila blasphemy row: Byblos show cancelled over 'bloodshed' fears

Organisers cite security concerns after Lebanese rock band had been accused of blasphemy by local church leaders
Hamed Sinno, Mashrou’ Leila's lead singer, pictured during a performance by the band in Beirut in 2015 (Reuters)
By Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut

The organisers of a music festival in the Lebanese city of Byblos have cancelled an appearance by a rock band accused of blasphemy by local church leaders, citing security concerns.

Mashrou’ Leila had been due to perform at the Byblos International Festival on 9 August, but the organisers said in a statement on Tuesday that the concert would not go ahead “to prevent bloodshed and to maintain security and stability”.

“We regret what has happened and would like to apologise to the attendees,” the statement said.

The band had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication. However, singer Hamed Sinno previously told Middle East Eye that the band was not willing to cancel the show despite the controversy surrounding it.

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Ziad Hawat, a former mayor of Byblos and a member of the Lebanese parliament, welcomed the decision, telling local newspaper Annahar that the cancellation was necessary to “preserve the image of Byblos, and its role in respecting sanctities and [religious] values”.

Hawat said his position echoed the views of other MPs representing the historic coastal town, indicating that there was no political or sectarian split on the issue. 

Mashrou’ Leila, which has amassed millions of fans worldwide in recent years, has been accused of blasphemy from various social media groups and the Catholic Church in recent weeks, citing lyrics in two songs, Djinn and Asnam, and memes shared by Sinno shared on his personal Facebook page which were seen as insulting to the Christian faith.

Church officials called for the show’s cancellation. Father Abdo Abu Kasm, a media spokesperson for the Catholic Media Centre, at one point called for legal action against the band.

"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."

The band, minus Sinno who currently resides in New York, was interrogated for six hours by state security, which answers to both the Lebanese president and prime minister, as part of an investigation into the allegations.

According to Lebanese state news, the band pledged to remove the songs in question from their social media platforms, issue a public apology, and continue the show without the songs that were deemed offensive.

Mashrou’ Leila never held a press conference but removed the controversial songs from the band’s Facebook and YouTube channels.

Judge Ghada Aoun dismissed charges of blasphemy and inciting sectarian strife, offences which could have resulted in a prison sentence of up 10 years, given that the band removed the controversial songs and memes from Facebook.

However, calls for disrupting the show continued. In one case, the band was deemed a “masonic-Zionist” project to morally corrupt Lebanon, citing the band’s support of gay and transgender rights and other social and political causes.

Elsewhere, a video went viral online of a Byblos priest urging a group of a few dozen families to obstruct the show peacefully without ruling out escalation. The priest said the show was part of ongoing oppression perpetrated against Christians “since the Crusades”. 

Having previously played at the festival in 2012 and 2016, it would have been the band’s third show at the Byblos International Festival, which has hosted a wide variety of world-famous artists, including Elton John, Lana Del Rey, Sia, John Legend, and Massive Attack.   

'This is what censorship is'

Human Rights Watch Lebanon Researcher Aya Majzoub condemned the festival committee’s decision to cancel the show and the lack of action from the Ministry of Interior to guarantee the safety of performers and concert-goers.

"The Mashrou’ Leila controversy perfectly encapsulates why Lebanon needs to urgently reform its criminal defamation and incitement laws such that they cannot be instrumentalised by powerful political or religious actors to infringe on the free speech of others,” she told Middle East Eye.

“The authorities should have publicly reassured the festival organisers and concert-goers that all the necessary security precautions were being put in place to guarantee their safety.”

Majzoub said the case set a dangerous precedent that threatened to undermine freedom of expression.

“It shows people that if they object strongly and loudly enough to voices that do not conform with their opinions and worldviews, they can silence those voices,” she said. “This is what censorship is.”

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