Christian missionary likely a pawn
in Syrian game

Canadian Jewish News - Staff Reporter
For 50 days in the heat of the summer, Bruce Balfour experienced what it’s like to run afoul of the government of Syria.

Beginning in mid-July, he was incarcerated inside “colossally overcrowded” Lebanese prisons, “roughed up a bit,” forced to sweat it out in a parked car in the Lebanese sun for hours on end, and in constant fear of being transferred to Syria, where he expected he would have disappeared without a trace.

All this on the trumped-up charge of collaborating with Israel.

Balfour believes his fate could have been much worse had the media not gotten hold of his story and Canadian authorities worked out a deal to gain his release early September.

Compared to his fellow prisoners in Lebanese prisons, some of whom have been languishing for years on minor charges, Balfour had it easy and was freed relatively quickly.

A Christian missionary who has lived in Israel at times, Balfour had only kind words for the efforts of Lebanon-based Canadian diplomats. He still speaks with a mixture of pride and awe of the arrival of Citizenship and Immigration Minister Denis Coderre at the Rouhmi prison in a limousine belonging to Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

That was a sight never before seen before in Lebanon, Balfour said.

Soon after the visit, despite having to undergo two more sham trials, he was released. Though originally facing up to 15 years in jail, he was acquitted of the collaboration charge and convicted instead of inciting sectarian sentiments. A Lebanese tribunal ruled the seven weeks he had spent in detention was sufficient and ordered him deported.

Balfour, who had travelled to Lebanon to work on a plan to plant cedar trees as described in the Bible, suspects Canada had to pay some kind of price, provide some kind of quid pro quo, to effect his release.

That sort of deal-making is standard operating procedure in the Middle East, said Elias Youssef Bejjani, spokesman for the Canadian Lebanese Human Rights Foundation.

Lebanon is thoroughly under the control of the occupying Syrian army, with Lebanese ministries responsible to their Syrian counterparts, he said. Hariri, a multi-millionaire businessman with ties with Canadian authorities, likely never even knew of Balfour’s arrest.

Speculating on the reasons for Balfour’s detention, Bejjani said “the plan was to hold Balfour, forge the case and give it to Syrians and Iran to negotiate with.”

In effect, he said, Balfour would be little more than a pawn in international wheeling and dealing related to other issues, perhaps the Zahra Kazemi case in Iran. Kazemi, a photojournalist with dual Canadian/Iranian citizenship, was killed while in Iranian custody.

Balfour said the charges he originally faced were completely fraudulent. For months prior to his incarceration, he had been negotiating with Lebanese officials to fulfill his dream to reforest the cedar groves in northern Lebanon. When he arrived in Beirut – sporting a new Canadian passport that did not bear an Israeli stamp – he was taken aside quickly and jailed.

He said he later learned “I had already been convicted” in absentia at an April 2 trial on the collaboration charge. Balfour, 52, was placed in an immigration jail cell that measured three metres by four metres and which at times held 35 men. He was later transferred to the Rouhmi prison.

Lebanese authorities at first refused to contact Canadian diplomats, but Balfour said he managed to sneak a message out of prison with a member of a humanitarian organization. The Lebanese government then lied to Canadian authorities, denying he was in jail. Finally, on July 24, he had his first visit from a Canadian envoy.

Bejjani said nothing in Lebanon happens without Syrian connivance. Their plan to use Balfour as a bargaining chip fell through because of the publicity and because the Canadian government likely concluded a deal with other Lebanese power-brokers, he said.

As for the future, Balfour is urging the Canadian government to consider attaching strings to a $250 million aid package earmarked for Lebanon. Canada should insist the money is properly accounted for or should give it directly to aid agencies and individual Lebanese organizations rather than to the government, he said