The smells of incense, sweat and decomposing bodies filled the small 13th century stone church.

"Look what we Christians are doing to each other," one woman cried to a visitor.

Inside lay the coffins of 31 people killed Tuesday in the latest round of fratricidal fighting among rival Christian groups in northern Lebanon.

The air in the church of Notre Dame de Zghorta was hot and stifling as hundreds of women, dressed in black and wailing in grief, pressed toward the coffins, lifting the lids of some of them and wailing louder.

One woman held aloft the lid of a small coffin containing the corpse of a 3-year-old girl.

"Look what they did to Tony Franjieh, his wife and his baby daughter," another mourner cried.

The death of Franjieh, 36, the son of a former Lebanese president, and at least 44 of his followers have plunged Lebanon into one of its worst crises since the 1975-76 civil war and irreparably damaged the country's alliance of right-wing Christian parties, political sources say.

The latest victims in the worsening conflict among former allies were killed in a drawn raid on the Franjieh summer residence in the village of Ehden near here Tuesday by 800 militiamen of the Christian Maronite Phalange Party. Earlier, followers of former president Suleiman Franjieh, the patriarch of this town which is his stronghold, had assassinated several local Phalangists.

Heavily armed Syrian peacekeeping troops were stationed all over the town to prevent new violence. Earlier in the day, the Syrians swooped down with tanks and 1,500 troops on the town of Deir al Ahmar and arrested about 200 Phalangists believed to have taken part in Tuesday's attack on Ehden.

The reasons behind the slayings form a complex tale of power, money, politics and territory.

Basically, the violence has grown out of protection rackets operated by both sides and a dispute over turf. Comparisons can be made with Chicago in the 1930s and the feudalism of the Middle Ages.

But the conflict also involves the elder Frajieh's recent attempts at reconciliation with the Mosler-Palestinian alliance which fought the Christians during the civil war and his opposition to the cozy relationship of other right-wing Christian groups with Israel.

During the war the Phalange, the largest party militia in the Maronite Lebanese Front with a force of up to 10,000 men, moved into areas of northern Lebanon controlled by what one military source described as a "small but tough militia" called the Zghorta Liberation Army. It was led by Tony Franjieh and fielded up to 800 men.

The Phalangist aim at the time was to help fight Moslem forces from nearby Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast. After the war the Phalangists stayed in some of these areas, notably the coastal town of Chekka where there is a profitable cement factory.

As in other districts where local militias demand a monthly "war chest" tax from families and business to maintain their forces, the Phalangists began to collect lucrative sums from the cement plant.

"Then Franjieh tried to muscle in to regain his feudal authority and there was an occasional ganglandstyle killing," a diplomat said.

Late last month followers of Franjieh killed four Phalangists at the Chekka plant, and a week later a Phalange Party official responsible for Zghorta was gunned down in his Chekka bank office.

Phalangist sources named the official's killers as two members of the Franjieh clan and claimed thew used Tony Franjieh's car.

Regardless of the responsibility for the assassination, the residents of this town see Tuesday's killings as an unjustified escalation of the dispute. Further acts of violence now seem inevitable as the Zgorta residents seek to avenge the killings. Franjieh himself has reportedly vowed a "war to the death" to avenge his son.

The high level visitors who were in Zghorta to express condolences - including President Sarkis and Syrian Foreign Minister Abdel-Halim Khaddam - came more as a mark of respect for Suleiman Franjieh than for his son, a former telecommunications minister who was widely accused of having used his post to enrich himself.

Ironically, though, he is now a martyr for the people of Zghorta. At his funeral yesterday, hundreds of townspeople wore hastily printed Tony Franjieh T-shirts - bearing a picture of him holding a telephone to his ear.

Manchester Guardian correspondent Martin Woollacott reported from Beirut:

he killings are more and more taking on the dimensions not only of a violent bid for power within the Lebanese Christian community, but of a direct challenge by the Phalange Party to the Syrians as the ultimate arbiters of Lebanese affairs.

The Syrians, who have had 27,000 troops in Lebanon trying to keep the peace since late 1976, are naturally offended at the flouting of their authority involved in an open military operation of the kind staged by the Phalange.

But it goes deeper than that, for the members of Franjieh's family are Syria's best friends among the Lebanese Christians. Close relations between the Franjieh family and President Hafez Assad of Syria go back many years.