Advertisement
Share

Bomb Kills 9, Injures 60 at Church in Lebanon : Terror: Catholic worshipers were taking Communion in Beirut suburb. No one claims responsibility.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A bomb exploded in a packed Maronite Catholic church on Sunday, killing nine worshipers and wounding at least 60 as they lined up in front of the altar to take Communion, police said.

Eyewitnesses at the Our Lady of Salvation church in this suburb north of Beirut stared petrified as the bomb tore icons from the walls, splintered pews and ripped apart Bibles and prayer books.

Survivors screamed at the sight of blood running on the church’s marble floors. Worshipers’ umbrellas, shoes and handbags lay scattered as Lebanese Red Cross volunteers rushed to administer first aid to the injured.

Among the dead was a 4-year-old girl. The priest celebrating the Mass, Father Antoine Sfeir, was among the injured.

Advertisement

Lebanese security forces found an even bigger bomb planted in the church organ and dismantled it. One witness saw the forces carry away four old artillery shells bound together with a detonator.

The scene of carnage was carried live on Lebanese TV within minutes of the explosion, adding to the shock felt across the city. Even in the worst days of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, places of worship were rarely targeted by the country’s rival militias.

Lebanon’s Cabinet called an emergency meeting Sunday night as investigators worked to establish a motive and identify the culprits.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but some government officials speculated that the bombing could be linked to an upcoming visit by Pope John Paul II or to a lone gunman’s massacre of 48 Palestinians in a West Bank mosque early Friday.

Advertisement

Lebanon’s Muslim Prime Minister Rafik Hariri went to the church after Sunday’s bombing and said it was carried out by “foreign hands” to “cover up” the massacre in Hebron. A similar charge was made by Foreign Minister Faris Bouez, a Maronite.

“It is not a coincidence that whenever Israel finds itself isolated . . . it resorts to such harsh actions,” Information Minister Michel Samaha said.

But Samaha also entertained the possibility that the blast was aimed at foiling the Pope’s scheduled visit to Lebanon in May.

“It could be aimed against the Pope’s visit, and we hope that it was not carried out by those who were against this visit,” he said.

Advertisement

Several Muslim fundamentalist groups and clerics have expressed reservations about the trip.

The Pope, speaking in St. Peter’s Square, denounced the bombing, telling pilgrims and tourists that he was suffering together with Maronite Christians over what he called “a crime that offends Lebanon and its noble traditions.”

In Washington, President Clinton called the attack “an outrage against faith and humanity.”

“Just as Friday’s massacre in a Hebron mosque was aimed at the peace process, this bomb attack seems clearly aimed at Lebanon’s reconciliation process,” he said. “The people of the Middle East deserve a peaceful future. They deserve the right to pray in peace.”

Advertisement

The Our Lady of Salvation church is unaffiliated with any Christian political figure, and no Christian dignitaries were attending Sunday’s service.

Christian fears of violence have run high since the Dec. 20 bombing of the headquarters of the Falangist Party, Lebanon’s largest Maronite political organization. No suspects were apprehended in the crime, which killed three and wounded 130.

The country’s 1 million Maronites, Lebanon’s largest Christian sect, dominated the country’s political scene since its 1943 independence from France.

They are, however, considered the main losers in the 1989 Arab League-brokered peace treaty that ended the country’s civil war by redistributing power among the sects.

Advertisement

The Pope’s visit will be a major challenge for the Lebanese government, whose ability to guarantee security has been in question since the blast at Falangist headquarters and since the still-unsolved assassination of a Jordanian diplomat in Beirut on Jan. 29.

The bombing is also a setback for Hariri’s government, which desperately needs stability to attract investment from foreigners and Lebanese expatriates for its reconstruction plans.


Advertisement