BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese bid farewell to an assassinated young Christian politician Thursday, turning his funeral into a powerful show of anger against Syria and its allies, led by the militant Shiite Muslim Hezbollah.
The sprawling funeral of Pierre Gemayel reinvigorated supporters of the U.S.-backed government in a showdown with Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies that threatens to split this small Middle East nation along sectarian lines.
"The second Independence Uprising was launched today for change and it will not stop," Gemayel's father, former President Amin Gemayel, told the crowd in Beirut's downtown, speaking from behind a panel of bulletproof glass. "I pledge to you that we will soon take steps so that your efforts will not go in vain."
The throng applauded as the coffin of Pierre Gemayel, wrapped in the flag of his Phalange Party -- white with a green cedar emblem -- was carried past the square to nearby St. George's Cathedral, where the packed congregation sang hymns. The 34-year-old Gemayel's wife wept in the church, leaning on his mother's shoulder.
Calls for unity
The head of the Maronite Church, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir called for unity to save the country, addressing a congregation of family and dignitaries who included the French foreign minister and the Arab League secretary general. The country's top Shiite politician, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a top Hezbollah ally, also attended in an attempt to show national unity.
But in the wake of Gemayel's slaying, Lebanon is polarized to a degree not seen since the 1975-1990 civil wars, sharply divided between anti-Syrian Christians and Sunni Muslims and pro-Syrian Shiites. Many fear Thursday's funeral could be the first round of demonstrations that could bring the political crisis into the volatile streets.
In Martyrs' Square, the crowd of men, women and children waved red, white and green Lebanese flags and posters of Gemayel with the slogans "We want to live" and "Awaiting justice." Police estimated some 800,000 people participated in the rally and funeral.
The square was the scene of mass anti-Syrian rallies in last year's "Cedar Revolution," which helped end Damascus' domination of Lebanon. But in contrast to those protests, which were often festive, Thursday's funeral rally was charged with anger -- at Damascus and its allies in Lebanon.
"They will not take away our determination to live ... and to be free," Walid Jumblatt, the Druse political leader and senior anti-Syrian figure who has accused Damascus of the assassination, told the crowd. Still, he said, he was open for a settlement with the government opponents. "We are for dialogue."
Many in the crowd burned pictures of Syria's president and Lebanon's pro-Syrian leaders. One man carried a large banner with the pictures of Lebanon's assassinated leaders and the words: "Syria's killing regime. Enough!"
Several of the politicians speaking in the square vowed the next step would be the removal of President Emile Lahoud, a staunch Syria supporter. Lahoud was at the Baabda presidential palace, where heavy security measures were taken amid fears that protesters would later march there to attempt to force the president to resign.
Anger also was pointed at Hezbollah, which had been calling for mass protests of its own in an effort to topple Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's government, which is dominated by opponents of Syria.
'They do not scare us'
After Gemayel's killing, the guerrilla group said it would not hold demonstrations for the time being -- but it is likely to feel a need to respond to Thursday's funeral with its own show of strength.
"If they (Hezbollah) have 30,000 rockets, we have 30,000 words. They do not scare us," said Joseph Hanna, a 45-year-old rental car shop owner and Gemayel backer who came to the rally to show his support of Saniora's government.
Gemayel, 34, was killed Tuesday when two cars blocked his vehicle at an intersection as he left a church and assassins shot him numerous times through a side window. His driver also was killed.
He was the sixth anti-Syrian figure killed in Lebanon in two years, including former prime minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, who was slain in a massive bomb blast in Beirut in February 2005. Syria has denied any role in the slaying of Gemayal and the other figures.
"Lebanese unity, consecrated by the blood of Rafik Hariri and Pierre Gemayal ... and all the martyrs to freedom, is stronger than their (the killers') weapons, than their terror," Hariri's son, Saad -- now the leader of the anti-Syrian majority bloc in parliament -- said in his address in Martyrs' Square.
He lauded "Lebanese unity," mentioning Sunni Muslim and Christian leaders, though no Shiites.
The funeral rally was a major show of Sunni-Christian unity -- particularly because Gemayel's right-wing Phalange Party fielded the main Christian militia during the 1975-90 civil war between Muslims and Christians in which 150,000 were killed.
It was also a revival of the mass protests that followed Hariri's assassination. That powerful popular movement, along with international pressure, forced Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon after nearly three decades of control. Anti-Syrian politicians were voted into power, breaking the hold of Damascus' allies.
But for the past year, Lebanon has been simmering with tensions between the two blocs. The United States has made the country a key front in its efforts to rein in Damascus and Tehran's power in the Mideast.
Though Hezbollah officials said the group would take no action in the coming days to allow emotions to cool, they accused the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority of capitalizing on Gemayel's murder for political ends.
"We were on the verge of taking to the streets," said Hussein Khalil, political adviser to Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. "The government coalition was in an unenviable position and was in a very big impasse. They needed blood to serve for them as kind of oxygen to give them a new life."
Many in the anti-Syrian coalition say Gemayel's assassination is part of an attempt to prevent the creation of an international tribunal to try suspects in the Hariri killing, including several Syrian officials.
Hezbollah and its allies quit Saniora's government when it gave initial approval for the U.N. mandated court. They are demanding that the government be changed to give them considerably more power or else they will launch their street campaign to bring it down.
Saniora has also asked the United Nations for technical help in finding Gemayel's killers.
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