800,000 mourn Maronite Lebanese leader

Presiding at a huge funeral Mass for slain Maronite political leader, Pierre Amine Gemayel, Lebanese Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir called for unity in the divided country.

The Guardian reports that hundreds of thousands of people gathered in central Beirut yesterday as Mr Gemayel's white coffin, draped in the flag of Mr Gemayel's Phalange party, was carried through the streets towards St George's Maronite Cathedral.

Crowds of mourners waving red, white and green Lebanese flags and those of Christian factions packed Martyrs' Square. Shops, schools, banks and government offices were closed on a day of mourning.

Inside the cathedral, the congregation - which included the assassinated industry minister's father, the former president Amin Gemayel - sang hymns.

Mr Gemayel's wife leaned on his mother's shoulder and wept.

Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the head of the Maronite Church, presided over the ceremony. The Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, and the parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri, were among those present.

Priests chanted prayers as Mr Gemayel's coffin and that of his bodyguard, Samir Shartuni, were carried into the church to the traditional applause from the congregation.

During the ceremony, a Jesuit priest read a message from Pope Benedict XVI who condemned the "unspeakable" assassination and called for unity in Lebanon.

Foreign envoys, including French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and Arab League chief Amr Mussa, joined the mourners for Mr Gemayel, the sixth critic of Syria to be assassinated in the past two years.

Fears that today's show of defiance against Syria and its Hezbollah allies could descend into violence prompted the deployment of thousands of troops in Beirut.

Police estimated that 800,000 people participated in the rally and funeral.

After silence during the funeral prayers, the sea of protesters in Martyrs' Square broke into anti-Syrian political speeches, chanting and music.

Leaders from Beirut's Sunni Muslim, Druze and Christian communities have accused Syria of killing Mr Gemayel, who comes from one of Lebanon's most prominent Maronite families.

Mr Gemayel and his bodyguard, Samir Shartuni, were killed in a Beirut suburb in broad daylight on Tuesday, when gunmen shot them at point-blank range after ramming their car. The killing was the sixth of an anti-Syrian figure in Lebanon in less than two years, and provoked condemnation from all quarters and appeals for calm.

When the shooting occurred, Lebanon was already in political crisis over efforts by Syrian and Iranian-backed Hezbollah to clip the wings of the ruling anti-Syrian majority coalition, which the Shia Muslim group regards as a puppet of Washington.

The cabinet was weakened by the resignation of six ministers from the Syrian-backed opposition, led by Hezbollah. They quit after the collapse of all-party talks on forming a government.

Hezbollah pledged street protests aimed at toppling the government, but Mr Gemayel's killing disrupted those plans.

Meanwhile, an Israeli commentator has warned that the political arrangement in Lebanon reserved the prime minister's office for a member of the Maronite Christian community, Dr Ganor said the demographic situation, including Christian emigration, was shifting rapidly towards Shia dominance.

"The Christian side has come to realise that it has few cards left to play."

Eliezer Tsafrir, a former senior Mossad official dealing with Lebanese affairs, said that although Lebanese feared a renewal of civil war, which took 100,000 lives in the 1970s and 80s, a renewal of ethnic warfare was "a definite possibility".

Hezbollah, more numerous and better trained, was likely to emerge victorious, he said.

Crowds mourn killed Lebanese minister (The Guardian, 24/11/06)
Thousands farewell Gemayel (News.com.au, 24/11/06)
Throngs mourn slain Lebanese official (Houston Chronicle, 24/11/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Pierre Amine Gemayel (Wikipedia)

Lebanon on brink over assassination (CathNews, 22/11/06)
Lebanon's Maronite bishops reject call for new govt (CathNews, 6/10/06)
Lebanon's "hell on earth": Order of Malta (CathNews, 29/8/06)
Stay in Lebanon: Maronite Archbishop begs his flock (CathNews, 22/8/06)
Bishops and church groups welcome Middle East ceasefire (CathNews, 14/8/06)
Neither retaliation or provocation can justify slaughter: Australian Maronite nun (CathNews, 11/8/06)
Aid agencies call on PM to push for Middle East ceasefire (CathNews, 7/8/06)
Unity and hope amid chaos in Lebanon (CathNews, 2/8/06)
Canberra Christian leaders slam Govt over "cowardly" silence on Middle East (CathNews, 1/8/06)
Benedict calls for miracle as Qana toll reaches 54 (CathNews 31/7/06)
Asian and African migrants "abandoned" in Lebanon, Vatican says (CathNews 27/7/06)
Students taking lead for Middle East peace (CathNews 26/7/06)
Lebanese Maronite bishops plea for UN help (CathNews 25/7/06)
Caritas Lebanon slams milk factory attack (CathNews 21/7/06)
Advertise Lebanon evacuation plans, stranded priest tells Govt (CathNews 20/7/06)

24 Nov 2006