The festival, held at the Rashid Karame International Fair Centre until 14 September, will host performances by Arab artists, including Iraqi heart-throb Kazim Sahir and racy Lebanese rising star Nancy Ajram.

“The festival is necessary. The city's leading economic, political and cultural figures have decided to go ahead with the event," Tripoli municipality president Samir Shaarani told AFP.

"We respect the opinion of the Islamic groups, but we do not have to abide by it. What we are doing does not harm Islam," said Shaarani, who also heads the association organising the event.

But Islamic groups in the port city of 400,000 mostly Sunni Muslim residents have denounced the festival as a "nest of debauchery" which "harms the cultural identity of Tripoli".

"Instead of this festival of debauchery and obscenity, organise something to alleviate the burdens of the families at the start of the school year"

Shaikh Hashim Minkara     
Head, Movement of Islamic Unification

"Tripoli's presence on the tourism map is very important, but it does not mean we should allow evenings of singing and shameless acts... which turn the residents away from their sacred causes," they said in a joint statement.

They called on the Lebanese president not sponsor the festival and have asked residents to boycott the shows.

'Encouraging vice'

In his Friday sermon, Shaikh Hashim Minkara, who heads the Movement of Islamic Unification, attacked what he described as an "encouragement for vice".

He called on organisers to cancel the event "in sign of respect to the martyrs of Palestine and Iraq".

"Instead of this festival of debauchery and obscenity, organise something to alleviate the burdens of the families at the start of the school year," the shaikh told the faithful in the overcrowded and impoverished old city centre.

But organisers of the festival insist that "the Lebanese and Arab artists due to perform are well known and respected".

"We respect the opinion of the Islamic groups, but we do not have to abide by it. What we are doing does not harm Islam"

Samir Shaarani,                 
Tripoli municipality president

"We also expect them to attract a large number of tourists" to Tripoli, they said in a recent statement.

"Tripoli is one of the main cities in Lebanon in terms of historical and touristic attractions, although few know this, including the Lebanese themselves," they said.

Tripoli is famous for its 14th century traditional souqs, four large 700-year-old mosques, its Ottoman-era hammams and the towering Saint Gilles crusader castle, built in the 12th century.

"The festival is not an end in itself," said organisers, but "one of the means to which we are resorting in order... to build a favourable atmosphere for tourism, just like the country's other cities."