Assad Nasrallah 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
They had begun to gather in early morning and by midday Thursday Beirut had been turned into a sea of red and white. Tens of thousands of mourners from all over the country descended upon the capital city to pay tribute to slain Christian Industry Minister Pierre Amin Gemayel.
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Almost all of the mourners seemed to be holding, or wearing across their shoulders, the Lebanese flag. It was a rare moment of Lebanese unity against a backdrop of sectarian violence that now threatens to spill over into civil war.
Lara Yaacoub left her home in the city of Naccache at 7.30 a.m. to guarantee herself a front-row standing position directly opposite St George's Church, where the slain minister's coffin was first brought before being taken to his home town of Bikfaya.
"I came here for my country," the 24-year-old university student told The Jerusalem Post. "It's important. We are not scared, but we worry about our future. If these explosions keep happening, if our people keep dying, what will become of us?
"We refuse to accept this situation," she went on. "Lebanon is a place where there is conflict between what America thinks, what Syria and Iran want, and what's best for the people of this country. Nobody cares about what we want. We want to live in peace, to work, to go to school. We want what everybody else in the world wants."
The loud chiming of bells signalled the arrival of Gemayel's body. The crowd erupted into spontaneous applause as the coffin was passed forward over the heads of security guards. Almost as quickly as they had applauded, the mourners hushed down and a somber quiet enveloped downtown Beirut.
Not far away from the church stands the large white tent where mourners still gather to pay tribute to former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who met the same fate as Gemayel in February 2005. Hariri's body, and those of the bodyguards who died trying to protect him, is flanked by larger than life photographs of the much loved leader. Solemn music plays almost non-stop.
Instead of celebrating the anniversary of their independence this week, the Lebanese are again mourning an outspoken critic of Damascus, the Syrian capital from where most here believe the order to kill Gemayel was issued.
"We hate Syria," 18-year-old university student Celene Salaam screamed out near the church. Cheers erupted around her.
"It was definitely Syria [that had Gemayel killed] because they're not democratic and they don't want Lebanon to be safe and peaceful," she told the Post.
"When the Syrian forces were here, they took all our money. They didn't want to leave," she went on. "Syria does not want Lebanon to be a good country. They killed Pierre [Gemayel]. He was very good. He loved Lebanon and worked hard for this country. He was like his uncle, who was a very brave man. Syria also killed him." (Bashir Gemayel was assassinated in 1982 shortly after being elected president.)
Pierre Gemayel is the fifth anti-Syrian Lebanese politician to be assassinated in the past two years.
Fearing for their lives, those who addressed the crowd during his funeral ceremonies at the church on Thursday spoke from behind a bulletproof case. As they left the area they were met with cheers of support, or cries of condemnation, depending on their position on Syria.
Conspicuous in its absence, however, was the voice of Hizbullah and its pro-Syrian allies. For weeks Hizbullah has been threatening to stage mass street protests in defiance of the government's refusal to grant it greater political representation. Earlier this week, Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah publicly declared that his followers would soon launch a campaign to get rid of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and his pro-American government, a threat Saniora is taking seriously. He has urged his ministers to bolster their security precautions. He has also requested that the United Nations provide technical assistance to investigate the murder of Gemayel and widen the remit of the international tribunal looking into the Hariri assassination in order to encompass the Gemayel killing, as well.
In a bitter twist of fate. it has transpired that Gemayel, who was almost always accompanied by police protection, had asked for reduced security the day before his murder. It is not yet clear why he did this.
On the day of his funeral, security was extremely tight. Every few hundred meters, police personnel kept back protesters, often linking arms to prevent the public from getting close to political figures.
Lebanon has had more than its fair share of assassinations, and history has taught this small country that such killings can catalyze drastic changes. In this case, many fear the drastic change will be a descent into another civil war.