BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese security forces on Friday hunted the gunman who killed an American woman missionary after her church had been threatened by Muslim clerics angry at its attempts to convert Muslims.
A day after the shooting of Bonnie Weatherall, a nurse assistant at an evangelical clinic, a leading Sunni Muslim cleric in south Lebanon said he did not condemn her killing but urged Lebanese to use other methods to show their contempt for U.S. policy.
"We do not condemn, but we want a different method than this one to show that our whole society is against the American policy and not only a small group or individual carrying out killing," Sheikh Maher Hammoud said.
"We want our society to become a resistance and work against the Great Satan; the oppressive and criminal America...Actions of killing and bombings that target Americans in any place...are an expression of Muslim condemnation of U.S. policy," he added.
Hammoud said he had repeatedly warned the Christian mission not to try to convert Muslims.
A suspected Islamist militant shot dead Weatherall, 31, on Thursday as she entered the clinic in the southern port of Sidon, run by the U.S.-based Christian and Missionary Alliance.
Sami Dagher, pastor of the Alliance's missions in Lebanon, told Reuters on Friday he had earlier received warnings from Muslim clergy.
"We had a discussion with Muslim clergy in Sidon... They don't want anyone to be converted to Christianity," he said.
"They asked me stop any Muslim coming to the church and I told them I cannot do that. It is the house of God and anyone is allowed to come," Dagher added.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility but a number of radical Sunni Muslim groups are active in southern Lebanon, including one on Washington's list of terrorist organizations with suspected links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
Lebanese police and security officials questioned witnesses and suspects on Friday but said no one had been arrested.
A source close to the investigation of the killing said Weatherall had been shot three times.
"The first shot was in her mouth as if to silence her. It appears when she fell on the floor she was shot twice in the head," the source told Reuters.
"The priest had received threats that Christian preaching and Christian activity is totally unacceptable in Sidon."
The pastor said the two remaining foreigners at the center -- one American and one Briton -- had been relocated but the mission in Sidon would remain open.
The U.S. embassy in Beirut, which issued a warning to Americans to "remain vigilant with regard to their personal safety and exercise caution," said it was working with Lebanese authorities on the case.
The incident was the first such killing in Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war, when Lebanese Muslim fundamentalist groups kidnapped and killed Americans and other Westerners.
Anti-American sentiment has grown in Lebanon since a Palestinian uprising against U.S. ally Israel began two years ago. Anger has also intensified over Washington's threatened military action against Iraq.
Last month, a senior U.S. diplomat was shot dead in Jordan amid a similar anti-American mood.
Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri condemned Weatherall's killing, saying in a statement it aimed to harm Lebanon's "efforts to strengthen stability and confidence in the country." A press release from the Alliance said: "The clinic is well-received by the community, but the religious majority in Sidon opposes the evangelical church's presence."
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