Republished from Now Lebanon ,
While much of Lebanon looks forward to celebrating the Pope’s arrival next Friday, a small group of activists were until recently preparing to mark the occasion in a rather different way.
On August 24, a Facebook event was created calling for a peaceful protest against the Pope during his three-day stay, citing the Vatican’s “corruption and immorality.” Users posted photos and anti-Pope slogans and debated with others opposed to the idea. On Monday, after over a week of infighting and physical threats to the organizers, the event was cancelled. As of Tuesday, 61 people had pledged to attend, while 49 said they “maybe” would. The event page has since been taken down.
The protest was aimed at specific Vatican policies, rather than Catholicism in general, according to Firas Taher, the organizer. These included the “embargo of contraception,” the “cover ups for pastors in clear cases of child molestation,” the “unjustified hatred and discrimination towards homosexuals,” the Pope’s “unexplained wealth,” and his “stand on abortion,” said Taher in correspondence with NOW Lebanon.
The cancellation raises the question of whether such a protest is yet possible in Lebanon, a country often seen as the freest in the Middle East but one in which public criticism of religious institutions remains taboo. “Are you serious? The religious assholes will slaughter us,” said one Facebook commenter, echoing the concerns of many. Indeed, within days Taher announced on the social network that he had “received a threat” to “hurt” participants in the protest.
Taher insists, however, that it was not security concerns that drove him to call the protest off. “The event wasn’t cancelled because of the threats, the threats were there from the beginning,” he told NOW Lebanon. “I cancelled the event because I realized that the Lebanese public is not ready for a demonstration of this type.”
“Most Lebanese people do not understand what a real protest is; their perception of a protest is people starting fights and burning tires and cars. This protest will definitely be misinterpreted and will only cause more problems.” Indeed, some mistakenly believed the event to be organized by Muslim extremists, following a call by Salafist cleric Omar Bakri Muhammad in early August to prevent the Pope’s visit on the grounds that he had “insulted” Islam. “Many of those who actually read the event description thought this was a religiously affiliated and/or a violent demonstration. Imagine what people who haven’t even read the description would think of it,” said Taher.
From a purely legal perspective, too, it’s unclear if such a protest would be possible. Lawyer and constitutional expert Marwan Sakr believes it would be protected under free speech legislation, provided demonstrators did not personally insult the Pope. “It’s a free speech issue, so as long as it’s peaceful there should be no problem,” he told NOW. “However, it is a crime to insult the Pope, because he is a head of state and we have legal provisions against insulting heads of state. There are a couple of articles in the civil code that were used very frequently during the Syrian occupation years against those attacking the Syrian president. So if anti-Pope demonstrators get really aggressive with their statements, they could be prosecuted.”
For their part, the organizers of the Pope’s visit told NOW they would not prevent demonstrators from staging protests. “If somebody wants to voice their opinion we cannot stop them,” said Father Abdo Bou Kassm, media coordinator of the Pope Visit’s Campaign. “But I can tell you that every Lebanese from all sects and parties welcomes the arrival of the Pope.” All the same, Bou Kassm told NOW that a number of security measures were being taken, including electronic frisks at entrances to the Pope’s various destinations.
Civil society groups, too, defended the rights of the protesters. “In a country where we have so many religious communities as well as people who don’t believe in any religion, you cannot shut everybody up. We have to agree to disagree,” said Lea Baroudi, co-founder of the MARCH NGO promoting free expression. “As long as the demonstration is not threatening or violent, then they are free to express whatever feelings they have.”
Baroudi dismisses the idea that Lebanon isn’t ready for a Pope protest. “Our authorities always deal with these things by saying we’re not ready, everything is taboo, but this only creates more frustration. I think we underestimate the Lebanese population. People can handle it.”
Taher, however, is less hopeful. “I do not believe that I will live to see an anti-Pope protest in Lebanon.”
Omar El-Tani contributed reporting.