Death highlights discord

Slaying and funeral of Christian leader show rifts within Lebanon

November 24, 2006|By New York Times News Service

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Hundreds of thousands of people poured into Lebanon's Martyrs Square yesterday, transforming the funeral service of slain government minister Pierre Gemayel into a political rally exposing the hatreds and schisms that have paralyzed the state and threatened an increasing cycle of violence.

From early in the morning, and for hours after, streams of people flowed into the square, chanting slogans cursing the president of Syria, Bashar Assad, cursing the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, and cursing the Christian leader, Gen. Michel Aoun, who has allied his party with Hezbollah.

It was a time of anger more than mourning - as Gemayel's flag-draped coffin was taken in a procession from his family home in the village of Bikfaya to St. George's Church in central Beirut 20 miles away.

"Nasrallah," screamed a small cluster of young men, "the Sunni will dig your grave!"

Gemayel, who came from one of Lebanon's most prominent and divisive Christian families, was ambushed and killed Tuesday as he drove his car through a Christian neighborhood on the edge of Beirut. He was 34, married, and the father of two small children. His grandfather and namesake, Pierre Gemayel, founded the Phalange party, a nationalist, religious militant organization once aligned with Israel; his father, Amin, was Lebanon's president in the 1980s.

He was the fifth anti-Syrian politician murdered since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, and his supporters immediately blamed Syria and its allies in Lebanon.

In the square, a young man walked by holding a poster of Aoun that asked "who split" Christian unity. It was more than Fadey Ghazehli, 21, could bear as he rushed forward, grabbed the sign and spit on it. "He split the Christian line," Ghazehli hollered. "He used to say he would disarm Hezbollah. Now he is with Hezbollah."

Martyrs Square for a brief moment in Lebanese history became a symbol of national unity, the site of the so-called Cedar Revolution. Hariri, a Sunni leader, was killed in a car bomb, and one month later, on March 14, tens of thousands of people entered the square, demanding that Syria remove its troops and its grip from Lebanon.

Under pressure, and under suspicion, Syria did withdraw and a coalition led by Hariri's son, Saad, took the name March 14th in honor of that day. It won a majority in parliamentary elections and took control of the government.

Now Martyrs Square is once again a symbol of death, of Lebanon's fate as a proxy battlefield for foreign influences, and more troubling for the state, of the divisions among its people. One of the most prominent features in the square is the flowing white tent that is the site of Hariri's grave. Down the block, covering the glass and steel facade of the An Nahar newspaper is a huge picture of Gebran Tueni, the editor of the paper and a member of parliament, killed last December.

Yesterday, there was a new picture hanging over the square - that of the young Gemayel. A three-story canvas of his round face, soft features, his tuft of thick black hair, hung off the tip of an extended crane. There were also banners blaming Syria and its allies for the death. One read: "Shove your civil war."

"Lebanon for life," said another.

Another transformed Aoun's name into an expletive.

A day earlier thousands of people visited the family and the flag-draped coffin in Bikfaya. The village is a symbol of the divisions that challenge Lebanese unity. At the entrance to the village stands a Soviet-style statue of Pierre Gemayel, the founder of the Phalange party and grandfather of the slain minister. During the civil war, the Phalange armed the largest militia, fought to oust Palestinians from Lebanon and was reviled by Muslims.

Gemayel's coffin, wrapped in the party flag, was first taken to the party offices in Beirut. Then it was taken to the site of Hariri's grave, and then to St. George's Church for the funeral Mass. The burial is to be in Bikfaya.

Everything was choreographed, politically attuned and presented with a degree of competence that comes from practice after so many assassinations. There were buttons of the slain minister's face. There were scarves with Hariri's likeness on them. There were lots of flags.

Hariri's grave site has, since his death, become a rallying point for his son, Saad, and their political allies.

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