Maronite Catholics attacked a newly built, independent Baptist church near Beirut in August, mauling churchgoers preparing to host war refugees from southern Lebanon.

The violence flared up after of several weeks of tense public debate between Maronite and Baptist clergy. The Maronite Church is an Eastern Rite church in communion with Rome.

More than 20 men from Ajaltoun village attacked Christ Bible Baptist Church, slashing car tires, breaking the church door and windows, stealing computer and sound equipment, beating men, and groping several women.

"Police were at the church watching everything," said Baptist pastor Raymond Abou-Mekhael, 35, who was assaulted. "They even advised the attackers on what to steal and vandalize."

Abou-Mekhael said that the men were led by Ajaltoun mayor Khalil Tabet, who had the church officially sealed off with red wax immediately after the attack.

In light of Lebanon's deeply entrenched ethnic and religious divides, it is not uncommon for government officials to carry deeper loyalties for their particular community leaders than for the central government and civil law.

Maronite bishop Guy-Paul Noujaim complained that the Baptists aimed to steal Maronite members of his flock.

"Why don't the Baptists want to be part of the Middle East Council of Churches?" the bishop wrote, referring to a council of Orthodox, Catholic, and certain Protestant churches. "Don't they support ecumenism and dialogue? If we are mistrustful of the Baptist people, it is because of their bad behavior."

"All it would take is one word from the bishop for the place to be opened," said one source close to the Maronite church. "But they've never had a Protestant Reformation in the Middle East, so they don't know quite what to do ...

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