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Lebanon: Qana mayor calls for help, prayers

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
[Episcopal News Service]  Salah Salamé, the mayor of the Lebanese town of Qana in which an apartment building was bombed July 31 by the Israeli military, says that humanitarian aid is desperately needed in his city and elsewhere in Lebanon.

Salamé said that churches need to advocate for delivery of such aid as medications, which are no longer available, for chronic diseases like diabetes and heart conditions. He said his brother died July 31 due to a lack of insulin. Salamé said 10 people have died of causes ranging from heart attacks from stress to lack of medicines.

Salamé also called on people of faith to continue to pray and to support Pope Benedict XVI's call for an immediate cease-fire.

Salamé made his remarks in a more-than-two-hour-long interview on August 3 in Paris with a journalist friend of Episcopal Bishop Pierre W. Whalon of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe. Whalon sat in on the interview and conveyed his impression of the session in an August 4 email.

When Qana was bombed, the Reuters news agency called it one of the deadliest air strikes of the war up to that point.

The mayor denied that Israel had any reason to attack the apartment building. The Israeli military has said that rockets aimed at its country had been launched from near the building. International outrage at the bombing prompted Israel to stop its attacks for 48 hours.

Salamé, who was elected Qana's mayor in 1998 and re-elected in 2005, has been stuck in Paris since the Israeli bombing of the Beirut airport, Whalon reported in his email.

Salamé said that 57 people died in the attack on the apartment building in Qana, including 29 children ranging in age from a few months to 13 years old. He said that reports from a hospital in the Lebanese city of Tyre that 28 people died in the attack are wrong.

Five more people have died due to other bombing, he said. There are also unclaimed cadavers, he said, on the outskirts of the city that lie unburied and thus exposed to the elements.

Salamé said that the Israelis warned they would attack and told the inhabitants to leave, but at the same time incapacitated the bridges and roads around the city. Only the wealthy found ways out before the attacks. There are still a number of people left of the 20,000 inhabitants who cannot seek refuge elsewhere, and there are no real bomb shelters. All city services are cut off, he said.

Salamé estimated the actual number of Lebanese refugees at 1.5 million, based on reports he has had by telephone. Most of the infrastructure rebuilt since the civil war has been destroyed again, ruining years of  hard work by Lebanese and helped, in part, by billions in international aid.

The mayor said that France has led the way in demanding an immediate cease-fire, which is needed most by the Lebanese population. He said that France has been willing to open talks directly with Iran. He was very critical of the United States' support of Israel. Salamé acknowledged that Hezbollah started the latest round of violence, but Israel's response has been completely out of proportion. He said he believes Israel had planned an attack on Hezbollah, and just wanted a provocation to put the plan into effect.

Many Lebanese Christians believe that Qana is actually the village of Cana, the site of Jesus' first miracle. Some experts say Qana is an unlikely candidate for that claim.

There are ancient Christian sites there, including a 1,300-year-old church. There is also a Roman cemetery. The city is 35 percent Christian and the rest divided among Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The mayor said he is himself is a Shiite but considers himself a "democrat." Whalon said that the mayor described a long history of peaceful coexistence and tolerance in the city.

The city, which has a sister-city relationship with Dearborn, Michigan, suffered an attack in 1996 when an Israeli artillery battery opened fire on a United Nations compound where hundreds had taken refuge during a campaign known as "Operation Grapes of Wrath." One hundred and seven people were killed and hundreds wounded.

Salamé said he wants to see a truly sovereign Lebanon, with Hezbollah disarmed and the Lebanese Army capable of defending the nation. He has no party affiliation himself.