JUNIEH, Lebanon -- An explosion ripped through a Maronite Catholic church during a service yesterday, killing at least nine people and wounding 60 others.
No group claimed responsibility for the bombing at the Notre Dame de la Deliverance Church. The bomb exploded under the altar while worshipers were at the altar rail receiving communion. Security officials said five other explosive devices had been found in the church, where 200 to 250 people, including many children, were worshiping.
Lebanese officials, including Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, said they suspected that Lebanese agents working for Israel engineered the blast to draw attention away from the attack at a mosque in the Israeli-occupied West Bank that left at least 40 Palestinian Arabs dead and more than 200 others wounded.
Shortly after the explosion, bodies lay strewn on the church floor, prayer books were shredded and covered with blood, and holy statues and icons were broken. The smell of incense was overpowered by gunpowder.
Security forces sealed off the area while ambulances and Red Cross rescue teams took victims to hospitals.
"We were shocked when we heard the news of the blast," said Interior Minister Bishara Mirhej, the first to arrive on the scene. "Whoever did this aimed at destabilizing Lebanon and sparking a new round of sectarian strife."
Mr. Hariri told reporters here yesterday: "The goal is to divert world attention away from the horrible massacre in Hebron."
A Lebanese security official said: "It is also possible that this may be part of intra-Christian feuds."
The official also said that the bombing might be "a message to Pope John Paul II not to visit Lebanon." A papal visit is scheduled in May.
Samira Bishara, 32, a survivor of the blast, said: "It's such a shame. Church is the only place where I always felt I would be safe."
Junieh, a small Mediterranean town, is the provincial capital in the Lebanese Christian heartland. The church is in the Zuk Mikael suburb, eight miles north of Beirut.
President Elias Hrawi, apparently alluding to the massacre in Israel, said in a statement: "A crime cannot be concealed by another crime."