JERUSALEM, June 2 (RNS)--Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas have seized the Christian Broadcasting Network's Middle East Television Network (METV) facilitybased in the predominantly Christian south Lebanese town of Marjayoun,CBN officials said Friday.

The seizure of METV's two-story, 6,000-square-foot studio and anearby 250-foot broadcast tower came May 30 as Israel andits proxy South Lebanese Army militia withdrew from their self-declared"security zone" in southern Lebanon.

But officials said the superstation, which is viewed by an estimated10 million people in 17 Middle Eastern nations, has continued tobroadcast via satellite from the nearby Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

Some $5 million worth of equipment was also stolen by vandals in thechaos following the withdrawal, Wes Hylton, METV general manager, said in an interview with RNS from his new base in Cyprus.

For 18 years, METV has beamed an American-style diet of sports,family sitcoms, and Christian talk shows to viewers in a region dominatedby tightly controlled Arab government channels.

But the Christian station was closely associated with Israel's rulein the former SLA enclave. Many Arab Muslims consider METV and other such stations to be little more than unwanted missionary operations that push American culture and conservative Christian theology that holds Jewish Israel to be part of God's plan for the return of Jesus Christ.

Hylton said the organization had begun preparing an alternativefacility in Cyprus several months ago, and most essential equipment hadbeen removed from the site before the unexpectedly early Israeliretreat.

"We knew the Israeli pullout was imminent, as was the collapse of thelocal militias," said Hylton. "Then last Monday, my news manager inLebanon called me at the office in Cyprus and said that they werepulling out the news equipment and personnel because things were fallingapart. I flew to Israel, and by the time I got to the border it waschaos. The roads were completely blocked by thousands and thousands ofLebanese vehicles."

Hylton said the last planned METV truckload of equipment and videotapes wasstalled at the border and ultimately confiscated by Hezbollah, the Islamic group that led the fight to oust Israel from south Lebanon.

Meanwhile, five Lebanese families affiliated with the METVoperation fled to Israel during the withdrawal, while another 55employees chose to remain behind in their homes--even though Hezbollaharrest warrants had been issued for the entire METV staff.

Lebanese Television subsequently showed scenes of the guerrillasbreaking into the METV studios. "They broke through the metal gates and broke down the door to theemployees' kitchen and shot up the place a little bit," said Hylton.

Despite widespread looting and chaos, none of the METV employees whoremained in Lebanon has been harmed by the Hezbollah. However, Hyltonsaid he is concerned about their ultimate fate in the coming weeks andmonths.

"Right now, the media eye has been on the Hezbollah. I think thereally dangerous time for them is still to come," he said.

Employees of METV who did leave Lebanon were able to escape toIsrael with only the clothes on their backs, he added, noting CBN hasestablished an emergency fund to help those employees obtain entry visasto the United States.

"If there is any crime they committed, it was to preach the Gospel,"he said. "We have all been technicians and operators, just people whopush buttons and play 'The 700 Club' and other Christian programs to thepeople of the Middle East."

Hylton said it isn't clear if the Hezbollah would try to use METV'sfacilities for its own broadcast activities. But he said METV had madearrangements to bequeath the broadcast tower and studio to a Christiantelevision station in Beirut. It is now up to the Lebanese government tosee that the property is actually turned over to the new owners.

METV is owned and operated by the Christian Broadcasting Network,which was founded in 1960 by the religious broadcaster and conservativepolitical activist Pat Robertson.