They call themselves the “Soldiers of God.” And they have become increasingly visible of late. Both on the street and on social media. Their coat of arms is a red and white templar-like shield donned by the wings of Saint Michael. Their Facebook page is dominated by images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
Officially formed in 2020, they like to refer to the Bible and try to impose their religious outlook on the Achrafieh neighborhood in Beirut.
Their political preference seems clear, as the “divine soldiers” in early November gathered in front of Judge Ghada Aoun’s home to insult her. Aoun is associated with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), bitter rivals of the Lebanese Forces, the country’s main other Christian party.
Elsewhere, the soldiers gathered in front of the SGBL bank in Achrafieh while brandishing swords and crosses. The location is telling in the light of the persistent rumors that banker Antoun Sehnaoui, who owns the bank, is supporting the group.
“I was warned: either you remove them or we will destroy them,” said visual artist Mirna Maalouf, just days after she on October 19 displayed her sculptures of colored women in Achrafieh’s Sassine Square to commemorate World Breast Cancer Day.
Maalouf’s artwork was part of an awareness campaign to raise funds for women unable to afford mammograms. However, her sculptures angered the self-proclaimed Soldiers of God, who assumed the work’s vivid colors were a reference to the LGBT community’s rainbow-colored flag.
While the threat against Maalouf seemed homophobic, the day after she was told to remove the sculptures or see them destroyed, the Beirut municipality seized them under the pretext of “nudity.”
Maalouf was surprised, as she had obtained approval by Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud to hold the exhibition. When she tried to find out why the sculptures were removed, she was told that “an anonymous entity” had complained about the presence of “naked women” in Sassine Square.
Only after Maalouf explained to Governor Abboud the exhibition’s purpose did he change his mind and allow her to put the sculptures on display again.
The incident, which in the end was resolved amicably, is only the latest indication that Lebanon is witnessing a deterioration in freedom of expression, as a result of the growing influence of extremist sectarian forces, which, with the support of powerful allies, have assumed guardianship over morality.
“Based on the constitution, Maalouf has the right to sue the Soldiers of God” for preventing her from exercising her right to freedom of expression, especially since she had official approval,” lawyer Ayman Raad told Daraj.
On June 24, members of the Soldiers of God destroyed a rainbow-colored billboard made of flowers, which had been set up by Beirut Pride to celebrate Pride Month with the hashtag #LoveAlwaysBlooms.
In a video that has since gone viral, the heavily muscled and bearded “divine soldiers” proclaimed they only wished to protect the Christian community against “satanic” intentions. “We do not accept the flag of homosexuals in our neighborhoods,” they screamed.
The incident is part of a wider trend in Lebanon and the region of escalating rhetoric and violence against the LGBTQ community. In Lebanon, anti-LGBTQ campaigns appear to be part of a growing movement hostile to people’s individual freedoms.
Ayman Raad, who was one of the lawyers representing the imprisoned protesters of the 2019 October protests, has accused authorities of using groups and legal entities to further their agenda while dodging accountability.
“Lebanon’s Public Prosecution Office (PPO) is the protector of the system,” he said. “And groups like the Soldiers of God, with their fanatical sectarian beliefs, serve the system.”
Raad furthermore pointed out the inconsistency of, on the one hand, the public prosecutor summoning a protestor to be interrogated for voicing an opinion, while the government turns a blind eye to harassment by a homophobic group.
According to Raad, the PPO can still summon Maalouf over an exhibit “promoting homosexuality”, while the Soldiers of God remain at large and roam the streets with their threats.
And they are not alone. Other, similar groups are free to roam, grow and impose their control. Last August, the municipality of Saida withdrew its support for a party organized by the World of Business after a campaign by local imams who claimed the event, which consisted of a series of musical and artistic performances, would violate the city’s family values.
Such attacks are (indirectly) supported by a public that attacks the LGBT+ community. Take Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian who stated that the Dar al Iftaa (the “House of Fatwas”) “would not allow the legalization of homosexuality.”
“It serves the interests of the corrupt in power,” said queer activist Doumit Azzi. “Many of those in power publicly ignore such groups and deny giving them support. But they in fact help them survive and even free their members when arrested.”
Thankfully, Maalouf succeeded in communicating her message, Azzi said, by insisting on keeping all sculptures, including the damaged ones, which she said had “gotten stronger.”
According to Azzi, the harassment of the LGBTQ community continues and is often justified by an appeal to “customs and traditions” or to “protect community.”
“This Soldiers of God group must be dealt with in a serious manner,” Azzi continued. “And their political and religious sponsors must be identified.”
Caroline Hayek wrote in L’Orient le Jour on July 1 that, according to local residents and other sources, the group is part of the security element surrounding banker Sehnaoui. But Asma Andraos, in charge of Sehnoaui’s media office, denied such accusations.
Ironically, the Soldiers of God have a striking resemblance with their Shiite counterparts of Hezbollah: from their God-inspired moniker and their black clothes to the weapons they carry to the sectarian rule they try to impose in their areas. Are we witnessing an attempt to create a Christian Hezbollah? Do Christian parties and leaders genuinely stand behind them?
Daraj tried to communicate with the Soldiers of God, but the only thing one member said was that they “speak in the name of Christ, defend the Bible and Christianity.”