BEIRUT – A top Lebanese music festival Tuesday canceled for security reasons a concert by a band accused of offending Christians, in a move activists decried as an attack on freedom of expression.
Mashrou’ Leila, whose singer is openly gay and whose outspoken Arabic lyrics tackle often taboo social issues, sparked controversy in Lebanon in July.
Lebanese clerics called for the indie band to cancel their Aug. 9 performance at the summer festival in the seaside resort of Byblos, charging that two of their songs — titled “Idols” and “Djin” — were offensive to Christians.
Critics on social media also threatened to attack the concert if the Lebanese band went ahead with the performance.
The complaints were related to lead singer Hamed Sinno sharing an article on Facebook containing an image in which the Virgin Mary’s face was replaced by that of American pop diva Madonna.
In a statement on Tuesday, Mashrou’ Leila clarified the post was shared in 2015 and deleted one year later.
The band condemned what it called “a deliberate campaign” against them, saying it was built on false accusations and a distortion of their lyrics.
Mashrou’ Leila said it “sincerely regrets causing offense to anyone’s beliefs” but denied that any of its songs were religiously offensive.
“In an unprecedented step and as a result of the latest series of developments, the committee is forced to cancel the Mashrou’ Leila concert,” the Byblos festival committee said in a statement.
The decision aims “to avoid bloodshed and preserve the safety and security” of festival-goers, it added.
Activists and fans condemned the cancellation as an attack on freedom of expression in the small Mediterranean country.
Sahar Mandour, Amnesty International’s Lebanon researcher, said she had seen freedom of expression increasingly restricted over the past three years.
“It is a dangerous indicator of the ability of groups to impose their will on the state and the public,” by threatening violence, she told AFP.
Religiously diverse Lebanon is one of the Middle East’s more liberal countries, but its myriad of recognized sects still wield major influence over social and cultural affairs.
On Monday, Christian authorities reiterated calls for the concert’s cancellation during a meeting at the Catholic Information Centre, a body that works with Lebanese authorities to censor artistic content.
They accused the band of prompting “ideas and actions that are offensive to the faith and its religious symbols.
Mashrou’ Leila was questioned by the judiciary last week, but were released without being charged.
The band had been expected to hold a press conference to issue a formal apology so the concert could go ahead, under an agreement between the Byblos festival and Lebanese authorities.
“We tried as much as possible to reach a solution” said the festival’s artistic director, Naji Baz.
“I’m not sure an apology would have been enough anyway because things got out of control,” he added.
Baz said organizers had no choice but to cancel the concert, which would have attracted around 4,000 people.
“The situation became hysterical with direct threats being made to the security and safety of the audience and the performers,” he told AFP.
On Monday, activists and fans of the band staged a demonstration in Beirut to denounce calls for the concert’s cancellation.
“If you fear for your faith because of a song … review your faith, not the song,” read one banner raised in the protest.
In response to Tuesday’s decision, a solidarity page set up by fans on Facebook said: “the concert was canceled, but our battle just started.”
Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, also criticised the decision.
“This is a step back for Lebanon, which has always prided itself on embracing diversity and being a center for music, art and culture in the region,” she said.
Mashrou’ Leila has often played in Lebanon since forming in 2008 while its members were still students at the American University of Beirut.
But it has created waves in the religiously conservative Middle East.
After a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Egypt in 2017, at which members of the audience waved a rainbow flag, Egyptian authorities launched a crackdown on the country’s LGBT community.
Its concerts in Jordan were canceled in 2016 and 2017.