Lebanon convicts Canadian of spying for Israel
Canadian Press 3/8/03

OTTAWA — A tree-planting Canadian missionary has already been convicted by a Lebanese court of collaborating with enemy Israel and now awaits sentencing, sources say.

Bruce Balfour, a Christian missionary from Calgary, left for Lebanon three weeks ago already aware that authorities could arrest him upon his arrival.

A military court convicted him in absentia four months ago, and Balfour was warned to stay away by a contact on Lebanon's security service.

His current imprisonment is not a surprise to him, say various sources close to the case.

But Balfour walked into his arrest, intent on spreading word of what he sees as a divine tree-planting mission linked to the second coming of Jesus Christ.

He was stopped at the Beirut airport, brought to jail and is currently scheduled for an appearance in military court on Aug. 11.

Canadian authorities will not comment on the case until they know just what Balfour is accused of doing to help Israel.

"We still need more information," said Reynald Doiron, a spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Department.

"We have the general framework of the puzzle but we don't have the missing pieces."

Foreign Affairs is still awaiting two key pieces of information before elaborating on the Balfour case.

Among those details is how he is accused of helping Israel _ with which Lebanon is still technically at war.

Doiron said there's no reason to suspect anything as serious as espionage, but he did not rule it out.

Second, it is unknown what sentence awaits Balfour, who could be informed of his fate as early as his next court appearance.

Article 278 of the Lebanese criminal code forbids collaboration with Israel, which is still seen as an enemy state three years after its occupying troops withdrew from south Lebanon.

The crime is punishable by an extreme range of possible sentences, from the smallest fine and jail time to death in the most extreme cases.

The harshest punishments have been reserved for military personnel or Lebanese deemed to have had a high-level involvement in the Israeli occupation from 1978 to 2000.

But Balfour's sister has said in an interview that Canadian authorities told her to expect not much more than a fine.

"What's the crime here? Travelling to a country," Laura Mackenzie said in an interview from Clearwater, British Columbia.

Balfour says his arrest is due only to computer records that showed he visited Israel.

Lebanese officials have disputed that accusation, saying travellers to Israel are told to leave Lebanon _ not arrested and kept there.

Balfour has travelled to the Middle East over two decades for months at a time, including to Lebanon and Israel.

The white-bearded and ruddy faced missionary carries with him gifts intended to spread the word of God.

Those gifts include stacks of Bibles he distributes and cedar seeds he spreads as part of a reforestation project with a divine twist.

One Mideast expert says many Christian missionaries were seen as Israeli accomplices in the 1980s.

In one noteable example, a coalition of evangelical Christian groups started a pro-Israeli radio station _ Radio Hope _ during its 22-year occupation.

Evangelical Christians see the strength of Israel as a necessary precursor to the second coming of Christ, said James Reilly, an expert in Arab-Israeli relations at the University of Toronto.

And Balfour explained in an interview that the much-anticipated arrival also depends on the restoration of Lebanon's once-bountiful cedar forests.

"God promised that Lebanon would be turned in a fruitful field and grow into a mature forest of cedar," he is quoted as saying in an interview with one Christian Web site.

"God also promised, the deaf shall hear the words of the book and the eyes of the blind shall see out of the darkness gloom to serve the Holy One of Israel."

While the pro-Israeli stance of evangelical Chistians has antagonized Lebanon, Reilly said the arrest of a Canadian is uncommon.

"This (Article 278) is selectively applied," he said.

"It's unusual for this charge to be laid against foreigners. Most often, this law has been applied against Lebanese citizens."