Church bomb raises fears for Pope: Massacre of Maronite Christians brings back nightmares of Lebanon's bitter civil war

ABOVE THE door, you could still read the name of the church. 'Our Lady Of Deliverance, Protect Us.' Rarely can a prayer have been so cruelly ignored. The blood inside ran across the marble floor, soaked the carpets and lay thick across torn prayer books and splintered pews, so much of it that the stunned soldiers and police officers tracked it out of the church on their feet.

'Unbelievable,' was all the Papal Nuncio could say before standing amid this tide of martyrdom in silent prayer below a torn oil-painting of the Virgin and Child.

There were at least two bombs, and it was tempting to ask the obvious question. If 43 Palestinians could be slaughtered in a Hebron mosque on Friday, could the massacre of 10 Lebanese Christians not prove to be retaliation - or at least connected? But nothing is that simple in Lebanon, especially when the old Christian militias here are still at odds with each other, and especially when the bombed church lies in the Maronite heartland below the Kesrouan hills where few Palestinians would choose to venture.

'We'd been expecting something like this,' one of the detectives up from Beirut commented amid the desolation. 'Remember - the Pope is coming to Lebanon in three months' time.'

And so he is, another symbol - if yesterday's bloodbath does not persuade him to cancel his trip on 29 May - of Lebanon's return to normality. Yet the scene inside Our Lady's church was like some terrible nightmare of the old civil war. Shattered windows, ambulances and the desolate faces of relatives staring at the wreckage of the ugly, modern church; all this was supposed to be a thing of the past in Lebanon.

The first bomb exploded opposite the organ as Father Antoine Sfeir gave Communion to dozens of men and women. The priest was among the 30 men, women and children wounded in the explosion, and his blood still lay on a prayer book next to the alter. Most of those closest to the bomb, kneeling at the right end of the communion rail, were killed outright.

Brigadier General Rafiq Hassan, the Lebanese police commander, claimed the bomb had been set off to disrupt the government's efforts to improve security. But among those sifting for evidence in the church, there was a growing suspicion this was 'local'. One rumour had it that the man who set off the bomb was standing with a colleague at the back of the church. No one here has forgotten that the headquarters of the Christian Phalange Party - descendant of the civil war militia of the same name - was bombed on 20 December, killing two people and wounding 130.

The bomb that cut down the congregation yesterday weighed only a few pounds but its impact in such a confined space was enormous. Most of the victims were blasted to death by the detonation amid a shower of glass, candlesticks, church icons and shredded prayer sheets. Rafiq Hariri, the Prime Minister - and the man who has largely enabled a rejuvenated Lebanon to absorb occasional violence - said 'an outside hand was at work'; other ministers suggested Israel had planned the bombing to distract attention from the Hebron massacre. Yet the Pope's forthcoming visit must be weighing heavily upon their minds.

He is scheduled to arrive at the old military airport at Rayak in the Bekaa Valley, visit Zahle - whose inhabitants claim it to be the largest Catholic city in the Middle East - and possibly travel to the village of Qana where Maronites believe Christ performed his first miracle of turning water into wine. But the Pope's visit has become a political issue in Lebanon with both Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, and the pro-Iranian Hizbollah party opposing the pilgrimage because of the Vatican's decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

The government hopes the Pope will urge Christians to place more faith in their own future here. For the country's 1 million or so Maronites were among the principal losers in the 1975-1990 civil war. Their territory was reduced in the 1983 conflict in the Chouf, their political power curbed by the 1989 Taif agreement, and their unity cracked the following year by a bloody war between General Michel Aoun and his Christian militia antagonist, Samir Geagea. Tens of thousands of Christians left Lebanon forever; others boycotted the first post-war parliamentary elections. In East Beirut, many Maronites maintain their antipathy towards Syria's military presence - and towards those Maronites in the north who have allied themselves with Syria. It is not hard to find Christians who believe the civil war is not yet over.

Yesterday they might have been forgiven for thinking they were right. In Sidon, gunmen killed a boutique owner, Soudqi Farhoud, the cousin of Yassar Arafat's senior intelligence officer in Lebanon. His murder may have been a direct consequence of the growing Palestinian contempt for Mr Arafat after the Hebron killings. Further south, four Hizbollah militia men were killed in an attack on an artillery compound held by Israel's proxy South Lebanon Army militia.

In all, 15 people were killed in less than 24 hours - it would have been a typical day in Lebanon's civil war.

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