BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Byblos festival has canceled a concert by the indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila “to prevent bloodshed” after calls from church leaders accusing the band of blasphemy and death threats on social media.
The Maronite Catholic Eparchy of Byblos said last week the Lebanese band’s songs “violate religious values” and demanded cancelling the show. The band, which has an openly gay vocalist, has performed around the world with its lyrics tackling sectarianism, gender equality and homophobia.
Critics include priests and Facebook users who vowed to stop the show by force, some dubbing themselves “God’s Soldiers”.
In turn, rights activists decried the pressure to cancel the Aug. 9 show as part of rising attacks on free speech and marginalised communities in Lebanon.
Lawmakers in the ancient city of Byblos urged the festival earlier on Tuesday to call off the show to “respect sanctities and morals”.
“In an unprecedented move … the committee was forced to stop the Mashrou’ Leila show … to prevent bloodshed and preserve security,” the festival, a major summer music event with gigs by local and foreign artists, said on Tuesday.
Protesters had gathered in Beirut on Monday to denounce what they deemed a more stifling climate in Lebanon – a country that long prided itself on being a beacon of freedom compared with the rest of the Arab world.
Amnesty International blamed Lebanese authorities on Tuesday for failing to protect the musicians and called the cancellation “an alarming indicator” of Lebanon’s declining freedom of expression.
“Cancelling the show will be a dangerous precedent,” LGBT rights activist George Azzi said on Tuesday. “If this repeats itself, it means Lebanon has entered a dark tunnel we will not get out of.”
The band, which has played across Lebanon including two shows in Byblos in recent years, said it was shocked by the scale of “accusations and lies”, which it described as a smear campaign.
“We aim for what is beautiful and innovative. This is neither a satanic band … nor does it have any secret agenda,” the four musicians said.
Playing its music around the Middle East has been difficult for Mashrou’ Leila at times, with conflict or social conservatism standing in the way.
Jordanian authorities have banned it from performing before. And in 2017, Egypt arrested dozens in a crackdown after fans raised a rainbow flag at a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo, a rare public show of support for LGBTQ rights.
Reporting by Ellen Francis,; Additional reporting by Issam Abdallah; Editing by William Maclean and Alison Williams