Tripoli, Lebanon, a city that prides itself as an intellectual hub of the world, suffered devastating losses in early January when unknown arsonists set fire to a valued library, destroying two thirds of its contents. Saeh Library, translated as “Travelers Library,” contained over 80,000 rare religious and philosophical texts, which some speculate may have been the motivation behind the attacks.
Tripoli has a starkly divided demographic of Christian, Sunni, and Shi’ite inhabitants among several other religions prominent in the area. Father Ibrahim Sarouja, the Greek Orthodox priest who is the library’s founder, is well known and loved in the community for preaching religious tolerance and harmony between neighbors.
An unknown security source reported to authorities that the fire was started in direct response to an anti-Islamic pamphlet found in one of the library’s book, which allegedly took a derogatory stance towards the prophet Muhammad. This would make the fire another tragic instance of sectarian violence that already plagues Lebanon.
The book burning has received significant outreach from Tripoli’s Muslim community, however. Salafist cleric Sheik Salem Rafei stated, “Islam denounces any unjust act against anyone,” and was highly critical of the attack. Many other Muslim leaders in the city, who have also spoken against the attack, share his opinion and are willing to do whatever political measure is necessary to make amends.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, also condemned the arson, exclaiming, “We denounce the burning of the library and reject any harm being done to Tripoli and its people, as it has been, and will remain, the city of the world and of intellectuals.”
Sarouja has found the communal response to the fire overwhelmingly up-lifting. Hundreds have come out to assist with clean up efforts and donate books to refurbish the library. Since January, $25,000 has been raised through online crowd-funding. The expected amount required to repair and replace what has been lost is $35,000.
To quote the priest, “(It was) a great source of joy for me that the burning of this library brought together Muslims and Christians, and especially clergy and Muslim sheiks.”
– Stefanie Doucette