A high-profile music festival yesterday called off a concert by Lebanese gay-friendly indie band Mashrou' Leila over security concerns, saying it wanted to avoid "bloodshed". Mashrou' Leila, whose singer is openly gay and whose outspoken Arabic lyrics tackle often taboo social issues, sparked controversy in Lebanon this month. Lebanese clerics called for the band to cancel their August 9 performance at the summer festival in the seaside resort of Byblos, charging that two of their songs-titled "Idols" and "Djin"-were offensive to Christians.

The complaints came after lead singer Hamed Sinno shared an article on Facebook containing an image in which the Virgin Mary's face was replaced by that of American pop diva Madonna. "In an unprecedented step and as a result of the latest series of developments, the committee is forced to cancel the Mashrou' Leila concert," the Byblos festival committee said in a statement. The decision aims "to avoid bloodshed and preserve the safety and security" of festival-goers, it added.
There was no immediate reaction from Mashrou' Leila but activists and fans condemned the cancellation as an attack on freedom of expression in the small Mediterranean country. "This is a step back for Lebanon, which has always prided itself on embracing diversity and being a centre for music, art and culture in the region," said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch.

On Monday, the Catholic Information Centre, an authority that works with Lebanese authorities to censor artistic content, reiterated calls for the concert's cancellation. It accused the band of prompting "ideas and actions that are offensive to the faith and its religious symbols".

In this file photo (From left) Musicians Haig Papazian, Carl Gerges and Hamed Sinno of Mashrou’ Leila pose for a picture in New York

'Why didn't they apologize?'
The band issued a statement earlier this month saying they "respected all religions and their symbols", and were saddened by "the distortion of the lyrics of some of our songs". They were expected to hold a press conference to issue a formal apology so the concert could go ahead, under an agreement between the Byblos festival and Lebanese authorities.

"We tried as much as possible to reach a solution…. Why didn't they apologize?" asked the festival's artistic director, Naji Baz. "I'm not sure an apology would have been enough anyway because things got out of control," Baz added. Baz said organizers had no choice but to cancel the concert, which would have attracted a turnout of around 4,000 people.
"The situation became hysterical with direct threats being made to the security and safety of the audience and the performers," he told AFP. Mashrou' Leila have often played in Lebanon since forming in 2008 while its members were still students at the American University of Beirut.
But it has created waves in the religiously conservative Middle East. They have sparked controversy in Egypt and were banned from performing in Jordan. After a Mashrou' Leila concert in Egypt in 2017, at which members of the audience waved a rainbow flag, Egyptian authorities launched a crackdown on the country's LGBT community. Religiously diverse Lebanon is one of the Middle East's more liberal countries, but its myriad of recognized sects still wield major influence over social and cultural affairs.-AFP