Canada Missionary in Lebanon Trial Over Israel Ties

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A Canadian Christian missionary who sought to replant the biblical cedars of Lebanon went on trial on Wednesday in a military tribunal on charges of collaborating with Lebanon's arch-foe Israel.

Bruce Balfour, 52, has been in jail since his arrest at Beirut airport on July 10 on what judicial sources said were charges of working with the Jewish state to spy on Hizbollah guerrillas and the Lebanese army.

Another Canadian has been charged in absentia.

"My client is innocent," defense lawyer George Assaf told Reuters. "They are not serious charges."

The Canadian embassy in Lebanon said it was following the case and had visited Balfour in jail about a dozen times. A previous trial date for August 11 was postponed.

Judicial sources said Balfour had visited and stayed in Lebanon frequently since Israel's 1982 invasion. They accused him and the other suspect of spying on Hizbollah and the Lebanese army while purporting to work on a reforestation project last year.

The sources said both men sought to locate military positions of Shi'ite Muslim Hizbollah and the army and pass information about them to Israel.

Lebanon is technically still at war with the Jewish state, which Iranian and Syrian-backed Hizbollah guerrillas helped drive from south Lebanon in 2000 after a 22-year occupation.

It is rare for a foreigner to be arrested or charged in Lebanon over allegations of espionage on behalf of Israel, with which Hizbollah guerrillas have sporadically clashed in a disputed border area since the Israeli pullout.


Balfour's evangelical organization, Cedars of Lebanon, said in documents posted on its Web site ( that Balfour had gone to Lebanon to replant cedar trees.

Some evangelical Christians believe the ancient temple of King Solomon must be rebuilt with cedar from Lebanon as one of the conditions of the second coming of Christ.

There is also a belief among some that the return of Jews to the Holy Land would bring forth the fiery battle between God and Satan, also known as Armageddon -- convictions that could be viewed with great suspicion in Lebanon.

"The Bible speaks of the people of Lebanon being surrounded by the cedars of Lebanon. Now they are surrounded by barren slopes," Balfour was quoted as saying in an article posted on the Web site.

"I believe our project is very dear to the heart of God."

He said he made contacts about replanting the trees, but came into conflict with Hizbollah. Balfour's family and friends said they believed the case against him was political.

"Bruce Balfour is a Canadian who is no spy," they said in a statement on the Web site.

Lebanon earlier this year reduced the sentences of four men, including a former senior figure in a rival Shi'ite militia, who had been convicted of providing Israel with intelligence on Hizbollah and the army.