An international music festival in Lebanon has dropped a popular local band from its line-up, following threats of violence on social media and pressure from Christian groups over lyrics they labeled as “blasphemous.”
Mashrou’ Leila‘s performance at the Byblos International Festival, scheduled for August 9, was canceled “to prevent bloodshed and maintain peace and security,” event organizers said in a statement on Tuesday. The group has performed at the festival twice before, in 2010 and 2016.
Critics say the cancellation is a worrying development for freedom of expression in Lebanon.
Threats to violently disrupt the concert swirled on social media after high-profile Christian activists accused the band of producing songs offensive to the religion.
In a statement on Tuesday, the band, whose frontman is openly gay, said their lyrics were “misinterpreted.”
“We were shocked by the magnitude of the accusations and the alteration of the lyrics’ meanings,” the group said in the statement. “The systematic campaign against us reached the level of threats and bloodshed.”
Mashrou’ Leila was cleared of wrongdoing last week after an investigation by authorities, according to Lebanon’s National News Agency. But threats against the band persisted, sparking outrage from civil society groups and international rights organization.
One activist filed a lawsuit against members of the campaign against the group.
“I filed a lawsuit against the people that are threatening with weapons, with killing, with beatings,” lawyer and human rights activist Khaled Merheb told CNN. “They had a WhatsApp group where they were talking about how they were going to destroy everyone who was going to the concert. And they were showing weapons, like guns,” he added.
Merheb was invited to the WhatsApp group used to organize against the concert and took screenshots, that CNN has seen, to build a case against the Christian activists.
Church leaders and politicians also joined the campaign to cancel the concert. The Maronite Catholic Eparchy of Jbeil stated on July 22 that the band’s song content affects “the majority of religious and human values.”
Byblos MPs had urged the festival to call off the show to “respect sanctities and morals,” according to Reuters.
Lynn Maalouf, Middle East Research Director at Amnesty International, condemned the decision to cancel the gig. “This decision is a devastating blow for the right to freedom of expression in the country,” she said in a statement, adding that it “exposes the Lebanese authorities’ abdication of their responsibility to ensure that the band was protected amid a mounting hate campaign.”
Mashrou’ Leila has performed in the country multiple times over the past decade. It rose to international prominence in recent years, performing in venues such as the Barbican in London and the Metropolitan Museum of New York.