At the end of June, a widely circulated video showed a floral display, installed for Pride Month in Beirut, being vandalised. The video was shot by the perpetrators themselves, a group who call themselves the "Soldiers of God". This group says they are fighting against civil marriage and the "abuses" committed by the LGBT community in Lebanon.
On June 24, a group of men filmed themselves in front of a rainbow-coloured flower arrangement in the predominately Christian neighbourhood of Achrafieh, Beriut, on Sassine Street. They were reciting verses from the Old Testament.
"[They are] wolves in sheep's clothing. They are kidnapping our children. [Homosexuality] is a sin fatal to the body and soul," one of them rages.
A young man who is blond and covered in tattoos is clutching onto the installation and ripping off the coloured flowers. Another member of the group addresses the camera, pointing a finger to the sky: "If anyone dares to display this rainbow-coloured flag again, it will be a signal from the Lord for his soldiers to eradicate it."
A third man then begins speaking about civil marriages. Non-religious marriages and same-sex marriages are banned in Lebanon but have controversially resurfaced in political debates. "This devil's law [civil marriage] will not pass!" the man promises.
The floral installation, erected on a billboard in early June by organisers of the Beirut Pride march, celebrated the diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities in Lebanon. Underneath the flowers, the words "#LoveAlwaysBlooms were written.
'Vigilantes' working in the name of God
The men in the video have not tried to keep their identities out of the press. Their names are Georges Chawa, Joseph Mansour and Sabeh Haddad and they call themselves "Jnoud el-Rabb" or "Soldiers of God".
After the video was released, the Ministry of Interior ordered security forces to "immediately take the necessary measures to prevent any kind of celebration, meeting or gathering" of people from the LGBT community. According to the Ministry, "the pretext of freedom of expression is not sufficient to justify the promotion of such activities that are contrary to divine principles".
'These men are implicitly unpunished and protected'
Wadih El Asmar, a member of the Lebanese Centre for Human Rights, is concerned about the authorities' response:
Such attacks are a consequence of the state's campaign targeting the LGBT community. We have to remember that the concept of the law is unclear, as the recent decision of the Ministry of Interior is unconstitutional.
It is clear from our point of view that the Ministry of Interior is taking advantage of the "actions" of these groups to sow confusion around troublesome issues in Lebanon, such as civil marriage or the rights of the LBGT community, and then to gain the sympathies of religious leaders – figures as spiritual as they are political – Muslim and Christian.
These men are implicitly unpunished and protected: they openly display their identity in videos and on social networks and yet they do not feel threatened by the law.
Civil marriage, another struggle of 'Jnoud el-Rabb'
Among their convictions, the "Jnoud el-Rabb" categorically refuse that civil marriage be legalised in Lebanon, where only religious ceremonies are allowed.
Bills intending to legalise civil marriage ceremonies have been the subject of debate in parliament since the 1950s. The controversial legislation has been systematically rejected.
But after the Lebanese legislative elections in May, newly elected Sunni MPs spoke in favour of the bill, prompting opposition from several religious leaders, both Christian and Muslim.
Like many Lebanese religious groups, the "Soldiers of God" oppose civil marriage legislation because they believe it would pave the way for the legalisation of same-sex unions.
On July 2, a protest against "pro-LGBT events" was organised in the centre of Tripoli, the country's second-largest city which has a Sunni majority. A well-known imam made the call to action the day before.
Wadih Al Asmar continued:
"Jnoud el-Rabb" is on the same page as Sunni extremists when it comes to rejecting civil marriage, which is something they associate with LGBT rights. But they are divided when it comes to the veil and other inter-religious issues.
Who are the 'Soldiers of God'?
This isn't the first time that the "Jnoud el-Rabb" or "Soldiers of God" have appeared online. They often post videos on Facebook, showing men on motorbikes or posing in black T-shirts wearing the group's "coat of arms": a shield with white wings decorated with red moline crosses in front of an open Bible. Their posts are often captioned with verses from the Old Testament.
The ultraconservative group hails from the neighbourhood of Achrafieh. They played a part in cancelling a 2019 concert of Lebanese group Machrou Leila, whose singer Hamed Sinno is openly gay.
Roula Talhouk is the director of the Centre for Islamic-Christian Documentation and Research at St Joseph's University in Beirut. She explains:
These men position themselves as protectors of God, because they feel that their religious beliefs, and by extension, themselves, are threatened or even persecuted in Lebanon, when in fact they are not. Their reaction to the relative secularisation of society is to revert to backward "basics" of religious culture, and to transpose forgotten ideals and cultural practices to contemporary society. They are incapable of acculturation: the more society rejects these claims, the more the group will lean towards extremism.
'They proclaim themselves as the ultimate defenders of God'
They are not just opposed to the LGBT community, or civil marriage, but even go so far as to proclaim themselves as the ultimate defenders of God.
Their rhetoric reminds me of the Christian fighters during the Lebanese civil war, who used to put crosses on machine guns and tanks. They were clearly saying to the enemy: 'I am bombing you in the name of God.'
On the Shiite side, Hezbollah also uses this aesthetic by incorporating the name of Allah into its political identity. This is a characteristic of all fundamentalists: not only do they oppose individuals outside their community, but they also have a very grounded and narrow view of religion, which does not allow any detours.
'Religious leaders have a real hold on the civil aspects of believers' lives'
In most Arab countries, especially multi-faith societies such as Lebanon, there is a personal status law. This law operates independently of the constitution. Most post-colonial Arab constitutions are rather secular. But in Lebanon, the personal status law gives religious leaders power over the private lives of their respective communities.
As a result, these leaders have a real hold on the civil aspects of life: inheritance, marriage, adoption or divorce. As Lebanon is home to different faiths, civil marriage would facilitate inter-religious marriages and, by extension, inter-religious and inter-community inheritance. Religious leaders say this shouldn't be the case.
Thus the social structure is closely linked to the religious structure, which in turn dictates the political structure of Lebanon. The proposed civil marriage law faces a lot of rejection because it would strip individuals of their religious affiliation and the control of religious leaders.
Although civil marriage is not practised in Lebanon, the country does recognise marriage contracts of heterosexual Lebanese citizens signed abroad.
In Lebanon, Article 534 of the penal code still criminalises "any unnatural sexual act", and prohibits same-sex unions, with a maximum sentence of one year in prison.
In 2007, only 18% of Lebanese were in favour of legalising homosexuality in their country, according to a Pew Research Center study.