Fears of civil war grow in the bitterly divided country as 800,000 pay their respects to Maronite politician
EIGHT-HUNDRED thousand mourners gathered in central Beirut last Saturday for the funeral Mass of murdered Maronite Catholic leader Pierrre Gemayel.
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, Patriarch of the Maronite Church in Lebanon, who presided over the Mass in St George's Cathedral, addressed the huge congregation and issued an impassioned plea for reconciliation.
"We are going through miserable days," he said. "But we hope they will be followed by happy days in which the Lebanese will reunite."
In a remarkable display of nationalist defiance, massive crowds tilled the streets around the cathedral waving the red, white and green national flags. Schools, shops and government offices were closed on a day of mourning.
During the Mass a Jesuit priest read out a message from Pope Benedict XVI which condemned the "unspeakable" assassination and appealed for unity in Lebanon.
The Pontiff had already reacted sharply to news of Mr Gemayel's killing. A day after the murder, during his weekly general audience, the Pope spoke out against the "dark forces that are trying to destroy the country".
Mr Gemayel's funeral was a dramatic and emotional affair. Lebanese heads of state and dignitaries filled the cathedral pews — including the murdered politician's father, former president Amin Gemayel.
Standing behind bulletproof glass, Amin Gemayel addressed the huge crowd outside the cathedral in Martyr Square.
"The second independence uprising for change was launched today and it will not stop," he said.
Mr Gemayel had already appealed for a calm response to the murder of his son just a few hours after he learned of the trilling.
He said: "I have one wish: that tonight be a night of prayer to contemplate the meaning of this martyrdom
and how to protect this country."
Pierre Gemayel, a leader of the Christian Phalange Party and Lebanon's industry minister and his bodyguard were shot dead driving through ideideh, a Christian area of Beirut. His car was rammed by another vehicle before three gunmen fired 20 bullets at the two men. The sound of the shots was reportedly muffled by silencers on the automatic weapons.
It is widely believed that pro-Syrian and Hezbollah forces are to blame for the assassination. Mr Gemayel's family have for some time represented the opposition to Syria's attempts to influence Lebanese government and its alleged funding of the tenor tactics of Hezbollah, the militant Islamist group.
Fr Joseph Abu Ghazale, parish priest of a Maronite church that stands 50 yards from the scene of the murder, was in no doubt as to who was behind the crime.
"Syria, for sure," he said. '"Thirty years of Syrian occupation weren't enough — they are still trying to kill the Gemayel family." Pierre Gemayel's uncle was Bashir
`We are going through miserable days, but we hope they will be followed by happy days in which the Lebanese will reunite'
Gemayel, who was killed in 1982, shortly after he was elected president.
During Pierre Gemayel's funeral the sombre atmosphere of mourning in the crowd was mixed with a seething resentment towards Syria and Hezbollah.
In the streets of Beirut, demonstators burned pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his ally, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. "We want revenge — from Lahoud and Bashar," they chanted. They also sang songs mocking Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
"We are here because we don't want to give this land to Syria or Iran," said Bouchra Salameh, a 59-year-old nurse. "They're tearing my country apart. it's burning. It's on fire."
Even inside the cathedral, bitterness was evident. Some of the congregation booed when Shia parliament speaker Nabih Beth, a Hezbollah ally, entered the building. Amin Gemayel pointedly ignored Mr Beth as he greeted other high-profile figures attending the Mass.
Mr Gemayel was the sixth anti-Syrian public figure to be killed in Lebanon in two years. In February 2005 the assasination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri sparked similar protests.
Commentators fear that the assassination will lead to another outbreak of civil war in Lebanon as violence forces the country's political struggle on to the streets.
There is substantial pressure on President Lahoud, whose term ends in a year, to step down. But the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority cannot muster sufficient votes to force him out.
But anger towards the alleged coalition between Syria and Lebanon is increasingly strong among the Lebanese population.
Lebanon is divided between anti-Syrian Christians and Sunni Muslims and pm-Syrian Shias.
But many Lebanese people are keen to focus on peace and national unity in the wake of the assassination.
"Otherwise it's the end of Lebanon," said Omar Farhat, a 35-year-old Phalange supporter.