By Rayane Abou Jaoude, Antoine Amrieh
BEIRUT/TRIPOLI, Lebanon: A Greek Orthodox priest whose library was torched in Tripoli over the weekend said he had forgiven the arsonists, though many described the incident as an attempt to incite strife in the troubled city.
“I am looking for them [the attackers] to tell them that I love them,” Father Ibrahim Sarouj told The Daily Star Sunday.
Though the perpetrators torched his age-old Al-Saeh Library, which was home to approximately 80,000 books, Sarouj explained that it was his “role” to love the attackers, whoever they may be.
“Of course I forgive them,” he said.
Civil Defense teams struggled to put out the flames that had engulfed the bookstore owned by the priest in the city’s old Serail neighborhood, turning one of Lebanon’s most renowned libraries into mere ashen rubble.
Unknown assailants had torched Al-Saeh, known as the Traveler’s Library, destroying “two thirds of some 80,000 books and manuscripts housed there,” AFP reported.
The attack came after rumors circulated that Sarouj wrote an article published on the Internet insulting Islam and the Prophet Mohammad.
Sarouj told The Daily Star that the reports, including one rumor that anti-Islamic materials were being stored in the library, were all “lies,” and that their instigators were just keen to “inciting strife” in Tripoli.
An emotional Sarouj explained to The Daily Star that he had always maintained a close relationship with the Muslim community.
“How is it possible that Muslims accuse me of this?” he asked.
The Lebanese police launched an investigation into the incident.
Civil society groups and activists gathered at the site of the age-old library in Tripoli over the weekend in solidarity with Sarouj, condemning the attack and collecting money for the renovations needed to rebuild the library.
The nonprofit organization Logos also launched a campaign Sunday aimed at replacing the books that perished in the fire. The president of the organization Samira Saridar said that she had received a number of calls from individuals eager to help.
The torching also sparked anger on social media, with numerous individuals condemning the attack on sites such as Facebook and Twitter over the weekend.
Sarouj not only expressed his admiration for the support he had received but also called it “the greatest victory.”
A lover of books from a very young age, the 72-year-old priest voiced an eagerness to rebuild the partly destroyed bookstore, but said he was not interested in pursuing the attackers.
“That is for the security forces,” he said. “The government brings them to justice, not me. I am only here to love them. I am here to carry them on my shoulders.”
Tripoli figures scrambled to contain the situation in the aftermath of the torching, as Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani said Sunday the attack was “barbaric” and did not reflect the morals of Islam, adding that it represented “a criminal attempt to drag Christians toward strife with Muslims in Lebanon.”
Future Movement MP Khaled Daher also denounced the attack, saying that it was a “desperate attempt by interior and exterior intelligence services to tarnish the image” of Lebanon’s second city.
Sarouj opened the library in 1972 and moved it to its current location 10 years later. He has faced several eviction attempts by developers. Sarouj in 2012 had said he rejected a demand made by the property owner to leave.
Future MP Mohammad Qabbani said that the fire was “a clear declaration that we have entered into the actual beginning of sectarian strife, and that we have not seriously worked to stop it, and it will burn Lebanon, God forbid, more than it has before.”
Former Tripoli MP Misbah al-Ahdab said the attack was part of a series of incidents aimed at demonstrating how Tripoli was “governed by takfirism and terrorism,” by striking any symbols of coexistence.
Internal Security Forces Brig. Imad Ayyoubi denied at a news conference Saturday the allegations made against Sarouj.
Salafist Sheikh Salem al-Rafei was in attendance and defended the Greek Orthodox priest, asking security forces to prosecute the strategists of the attack rather than its executors.
Tripoli MP Robert Fadel condemned the attack and said the authorities knew who the perpetrator was.
“The security agencies know the perpetrator and should arrest him ... there will be no political cover for anyone,” Fadel told reporters present at the conference.
Ashraf Rifi, former head of the Internal Security Forces who hails from Tripoli, defended Sarouj and said a foreigner unrelated to the Greek Orthodox priest had written the offensive article.
Former PM Fouad Siniora also condemned the attack, saying that the perpetrators only served Lebanon’s enemies.
“Whoever did this is doing a favor for the enemies of Lebanon and of coexistence ... with the aim of damaging Tripoli’s image and depicting it as a city of extremism,” Siniora said in a statement.
Political figures were forced out of a protest organized by civil society groups to support Sarouj. Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra and Akkar MP Khodr Habib marched along with civil society members during the protest when they were abruptly asked to leave.
Civil society members in turn said they did not want to politicize the incident with their presence.