JERUSALEM, June 2 (RNS)--Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas have seized the Christian Broadcasting Network's Middle East Television Network (METV) facility based 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 a nearby 250-foot broadcast tower came May 30 as Israel and its 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 estimated 10 million people in 17 Middle Eastern nations, has continued to broadcast via satellite from the nearby Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

Some $5 million worth of equipment was also stolen by vandals in the chaos 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 dominated by tightly controlled Arab government channels.

But the Christian station was closely associated with Israel's rule in 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 alternative facility in Cyprus several months ago, and most essential equipment had been removed from the site before the unexpectedly early Israeli retreat.

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

Hylton said the last planned METV truckload of equipment and videotapes was stalled 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 METV operation fled to Israel during the withdrawal, while another 55 employees chose to remain behind in their homes--even though Hezbollah arrest warrants had been issued for the entire METV staff.

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

Despite widespread looting and chaos, none of the METV employees who remained in Lebanon has been harmed by the Hezbollah. However, Hylton said he is concerned about their ultimate fate in the coming weeks and months.

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

Employees of METV who did leave Lebanon were able to escape to Israel with only the clothes on their backs, he added, noting CBN has established an emergency fund to help those employees obtain entry visas to 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 who push buttons and play 'The 700 Club' and other Christian programs to the people of the Middle East."

Hylton said it isn't clear if the Hezbollah would try to use METV's facilities for its own broadcast activities. But he said METV had made arrangements to bequeath the broadcast tower and studio to a Christian television station in Beirut. It is now up to the Lebanese government to see 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 conservative political activist Pat Robertson.

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