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Christian-Muslim unity amid church's debris

The Rev. Hanna Haddad surveys the bomb damage in his Beirut church and refuses to blame his Muslim neighbors: ''Many people were shocked at this attack , Christian and Muslim. The Christians and Muslims here in our neighborhood are friends.''

''I am a Muslim. But the person who did this is not a human being,'' says Bilal al Meer, a young man in his early 20s. The windows in his apartment across the street were shattered by the force of the bomb. His family runs a sports store 50 yards from the church.

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''Actually we were hiding in the church during the Israeli invasion last year - Christians and Muslims. It is safe. It is concrete. . . . This attack is against Muslims, not just Christians. . . .''

Even in Beirut, which has been battered by nine years of almost every imaginable brand of violence, the deliberate bombing of two churches Dec. 13 in the predominantly Muslim west of the city was a rarity. In recent months, bombs have exploded after sundown in Christian-owned shops in the area. At the height of the civil war, shells sometimes hit on or near rival religious sites. But, sighs a Christian cleric, ''almost never something like this.''

The first of almost identical explosions came right before Beirut's 8 p.m. curfew: 22 pounds of TNT in the entryway of Fr. Haddad's church, the Greek-rite Catholic Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. The second came 40 minutes later at a nearby Assyrian Catholic church.

Violence has atomized Lebanon, broken it into ever smaller compartments of clan. But the horror at the bombing of St. Peter's and St. Paul's - in a slice of west Beirut where sizable numbers of Christians have always lived in something approaching harmony with the Muslim majority - seems to have defied these boundaries.

A large structure built some 15 years ago, the church had displayed almost no damage from Lebanon's civil strife except for the dotted signature of sniper fire in its bell tower.

Shortly after the explosion, people from the neighborhood began drifting toward the church, defying the curfew. Muslim neighbors brought soft drinks for Fr. Haddad, who was in his second-floor quarters when the bomb exploded. A trickle of visitors resumed early the next day.

''In Lebanese terms,'' says the church's assistant pastor, the young, dark-haired Fr. Albert, ''this was a good explosion. No one was killed. We are thankful.'' He motions toward the gaping hole in the front of the church, where a large wooden door once hung, and the concrete church floor, strewn with glass of all colors, and toward hardwood pews thrown together in strange jumbles, almost as if bracing for another explosion.

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''Even all this damage - let's say a half-million Lebanese pounds, a hundred thousand dollars - is less than if a single man had been killed walking outside.''

Fr. Haddad, upstairs, embraces a parishioner who has come to offer condolences. ''No. I am not surprised. There have been so many attacks in the past years in Lebanon, one cannot really be surprised.''

The aim of the attack? ''I cannot guess. There are so many aims in this country.'' He speaks with resignation, detachment, as if reciting a school lesson.

But then pride seems to animate his voice. ''I have stayed here for nine years. I have not left, even for a vacation. My parish here is 5,000 people, and almost all of them have stayed through the war, even when the Israelis came in. . . . I said, 'Stay. Do not be afraid.' ''

He pledges he will not leave now.

''Fr. Haddad is my friend,'' says the corpulent, mustachioed owner of Bohsali's Sweet Shop across the street. ''We heard about the bomb on Beirut Radio. At first, they said it was my shop. I hurried over here. The windows were broken, but the bomb was in the church.

''Everybody hid there during the war, and Fr. Haddad welcomed them. . . .''

Several doors away, Abed Farchoukh sets about replacing the windows of his jewelry and electric goods shop for the fourth time since civil war erupted in 1975.

''When you bomb a church, or a mosque, you are taking away the last place where people can be brothers, be safe, talk to one another,'' he says.

He has not visited the church since the bombing. He will not. ''What for?'' he muses. ''To see something terrible? I already know what I will see. I have seen many terrible things in the past years here.''

Everyone in the area seems to agree on one thing: The bomb was the work of outsiders, maybe paid saboteurs, but not someone from the neighborhood.

Who, precisely, did it? And why?

''You can ask such questions all day, and there are no answers,'' says Yussef Shaar, a Druze. One of his relatives jointly owns a neighborhood furniture shop with a childhood Christian friend. ''There are no answers in Lebanon: first the 1975 war, the invasion, international peacekeepers. We have everything, but no answers.''

Young Bilal al Meer has no doubts on the purpose of the attack: ''The aim is to make people afraid of each other.''

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