A Lebanese Baptist leader condemned Monday’s assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, who last fall greeted a European Baptist Federation delegation in his Beirut home.

Rafic Hariri, a billionaire philanthropist who helped rebuild Beirut from ravages of a 15-year civil war, died in a massive car-bomb explosion in the city’s downtown district. Nine others were also killed in the blast, which injured about 100.

Among the severely injured was Dr. Basil Fleihan, former Lebanese Minister of Economy and Trade and the sole representative of the Protestant church in the Lebanese Parliament.

Baptist leader Nabil Costa, executive director of the Lebanese Society for Educational &Social Development, described Fleihan as “a close friend” and sought prayer for him and his family in what he said is an “extremely critical health condition.”

Costa was part of a delegation of Baptist leaders meeting in Lebanon last September granted rare meetings both with Hariri and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. In the meeting Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, told Baptist leaders the U.S.-led war in Iraq “is not between Christians and Muslims” and that Christians outside of the Middle East harm Muslims “by saying they cause terrorism.”

Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics also attended the meeting. Parham said he was struck by Hariri’s “strong commitment to religious liberty for Lebanon.”

Parham described Hariri’s death as “a significant loss for the people of Lebanon, especially Protestants.”

“I hope all Baptists in their Wednesday prayer services will remember our fellow Baptists and other people of faith in Lebanon,” Parham said. “We need to pray and work for peace in Lebanon.”

Costa also asked Baptists to pray for people who lost loved ones in the attack, for the country and region at large and that the Lebanese people would not react negatively to “the huge loss that befell us.”

Costa said Christians “have a strategic role” in the Middle East and prayed “the occasional apparent success of evil attempts do not succeed and dissuade us from the task that is before us.”

He also asked for prayer that “good conquers evil and that love wins over hatred.”

One of the most visible and influential Lebanese leaders around the world, Hariri was prime minister for 10 of the 15 years since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war. He resigned from office in October.

Hariri was the driving force behind a multibillion-dollar rebuilding effort in Beirut. He paid special attention to the social, educational and health problems that Lebanon faced as a result of the war.

In 1979, he established the Hariri Foundation, a non-profit organization with offices in Beirut, Paris and Washington that has helped more than 30,000 students pursue university studies in Lebanon, Europe and America.

A message on the U.S. chapter’s Web site said the foundation is “deeply saddened” by the passing of its founder.

The bombing was reminiscent of the dark days of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, when sectarian violence was common. The country has enjoyed relative peace under occupation of Syria’s military, which recently is being increasingly opposed by Lebanese citizens.

The United Nations Security Council in September adopted a resolution sponsored by the United States and France calling on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and cease meddling in the affairs of its smaller neighbor.

President Bush was “shocked and angered” to learn of the terrorist attack and assassination, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in a briefing.

“His murder is an attempt to stifle … efforts to build an independent, sovereign Lebanon, free of foreign domination,” McClellan said. “The people of Lebanon deserve the freedom to choose their leaders free of intimidation, terror and foreign occupation.”

A previously unknown group, “Victory and Jihad in Greater Syria,” claimed responsibility for the bombing. A statement posted on the Internet Tuesday and attributed to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network denied involvement.

The White House said it is “premature to know who was responsible for this attack, but we continue to be concerned about the foreign occupation in Lebanon.”

Syria’s government condemned the bombing as an “act of terrorism,” and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent condolences to the Hariri family.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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