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Israel ties’ land man in Lebanese jail

TORONTO, Aug. 4 (JTA) — An evangelical Christian from Canada faces charges in Lebanon of collaborating with Israel. Bruce Balfour, 52, who was involved with a reforestation project in Lebanon, has been imprisoned since his arrival in Beirut on July 10. He faces an Aug. 11 date before a Lebanese military tribunal. Previous information had indicated that Balfour, a resident of Calgary, was being held in Lebanon’s Rumy Prison simply because he had visited Israel on past occasions. Balfour is the Canadian field director of an international effort to replant Lebanon’s war-ravaged forests, in particular a grove of trees near the northern city of Becherre on the slopes of Lebanon’s tallest mountain. “I was arrested because a computer entry said I have been in Israel at one time, which is true,” he wrote in a letter to the Canadian ambassador on July 22. “But please tell me where the crime in this is? My freedom has been taken away and I have been treated horribly.” In his letter, Balfour claimed he had made more than 100 requests to contact the Canadian Embassy but was denied that right under international law. “I need to get out of here now, every hour multiplies the possibility of my being moved to another location and disappearing forever,” he wrote. Canadian consular officials did not learn of his arrest until a Lebanese informant told them about it 10 days afterward. Having visited Balfour three times in late July, consular officials report that he has suffered no abuse. The Canadian Embassy sent a diplomatic note to the Lebanese government, requesting additional information about the charges against Balfour. According to Marie-Christine Lilkoff, an Ottawa-based spokeswoman for Canada’s department of foreign affairs, Lebanese authorities have revealed that Balfour was charged in absentia months ago. Lebanon evidently charged him with “collaborating with the enemy under the Lebanese penal code” on April 2, and confirmed the charges on April 15. “We don’t know at this time the exact nature of the charges,” Lilkoff said. “The information I have is that Mr. Balfour has not chosen a lawyer yet. When he does and we have an opportunity to meet with his lawyer, then we’ll have more information available to us.” A Web site for the Cedars of Lebanon Reforestation Project offers a declaration from the organization’s field director that details the mission of replenishing ancient forests known since biblical times as the Cedars of Lebanon. Noting that some of those trees provided building material for King Solomon’s Temple nearly 3,000 years ago, the Web site expressed the wish that the group’s newly planted trees would grow into the Christian “Millennial Kingdom of Our Lord.” The Web site also reveals that the project enjoyed the support of university and other groups in Lebanon, but had met stiff opposition from Hezbollah, the fundamentalist militia that is the dominant military force in southern Lebanon. A Hezbollah squad reportedly tried to seize Balfour on a previous visit, but he managed to evade seizure and leave the country. He subsequently transferred his post from a forest in the south to one in the north. Balfour’s detention has generated headlines across Canada. The country still is embroiled in heated discussions with another Islamic regime — Iran — over the recent beating death of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi while in Iranian custody. Jewish groups see Balfour’s arrest as evidence of the increasing dominance of Hezbollah in Lebanese political affairs. A major political force in Lebanon, Hezbollah is outlawed as a terrorist entity in Canada. “There’s no question that Hezbollah’s influence over the Lebanese government is growing,” said Joseph Ben Ami, director of communications for B’nai Brith Canada. “We have to ask the question: Is the Lebanese government sending a message to the evangelical community?” Ben Ami asked. “The message is, ‘If you visit Israel, if you support Israel, if you have any connection to Israel, we’re going to treat you like common criminals when you come here.’ ” Keith Landy, national director of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said that any Lebanese allegation that Balfour might have been spying for Israel would have to be “scrupulously reviewed.” “The fact that Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government and is a banned terrorist group in Canada means that we should view these allegations with the greatest amount of scrutiny and suspicion,” he said.