Lebanese Outrage Erases Religious Barriers

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Lebanese have united — Christian and Muslim — amid their  shock, outrage and grief over the tragic assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Hariri was killed Feb. 14 in a massive explosion as his armored convoy passed through the seafront area of downtown Beirut. The blast killed 16 others and wounded more than 100 people, leaving a crater 10-feet deep. Hariri, a self-made billionaire, masterminded the reconstruction of the ruins of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.

Not since Pope John Paul II’s visit to Lebanon in 1997, when he declared the country “a message of liberty and an example of pluralism to the Middle East as well as for the West,” had such crowds gathered in Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands participated in Hariri’s funeral. Islamic prayers echoed from the mosque that Hariri built, in unison with the bells from nearby St. George Church in downtown Beirut.

Hariri’s tomb is the scene of a nightly vigil, with Muslims and Christians openly praying side by side. A mountain of flowers covers his resting place, surrounded by candles, many bearing the images of the Blessed Mother and Lebanon’s beloved saints.

One week after Hariri’s assassination, at least 100,000 people participated in a peaceful march in Beirut. The message was clear: “Syria: Out!” A minute of silence was also observed throughout the country at 12:55 p.m., marking the time of the explosion that shook Beirut.

“Our hope is for a Lebanon free from all foreign forces, especially the Syrians,” said Bishop Béchara Rai, the Maronite Catholic Bishop of Jbeil. “And it is time. After 30 years of war and of events, we hope that Lebanon can have its entire sovereignty, integrity of territory and independence.

“It is time that Lebanon plays its role and shows to the world that the different cultures and different religions can live in peace,” Bishop Rai said. “This is our hope, and we pray that God accepts this sacrifice of Mr. Hariri for this purpose.”

Syria’s de facto rule over Lebanon gained renewed international attention in September, following the passage of the U.S.- and French-sponsored U.N. Resolution 1559, which calls for the immediate withdrawal of foreign forces in Lebanon.

Opposition to Lebanon’s Syrian-dominated government escalated when Syria maneuvered a constitutional amendment extending the mandate of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. Hariri, a Sunni Muslim who served as prime minister from 1992-98 and from 2000-2004, resigned in protest last October and was widely expected to join the united opposition group, which now includes Christian, Muslim and Druze representation.

Lebanon’s constitution stipulates that its president be a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim. Of Lebanon’s approximate population of 3.5 million, one third is Christian, with about 1 million Maronite Catholics.

The Taif Accord, signed in 1989 and officially ending Lebanon’s civil war, called for the deployment of Syrian troops. Some 15,000 Syrian troops remain, along with an intelligence force, an intimidating presence to the Lebanese. That has resulted in some skirmishes with the populace.

University students, in particular, “have always wanted to demonstrate against the government,” said Father Martin McDermott, an American Jesuit who has served in Lebanon for 32 years. His parish adjoins the University of St. Joseph in Beirut.

“But then these thugs who come from the intelligence services — both Syrian and Lebanese — would go in and beat them up,” he said. “I don’t think [the protesters] are going to let themselves be stopped now.”

Former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, a prominent member of the Christian opposition, noted, “The people have expressed very strongly their anger against the government. You know the saying: vox populi, vox dei, it means the voice of the people is the voice of God.

“This is the beginning of a complete new era for Lebanon,” Gemayel predicted.

The opposition called for a democratic uprising by the Lebanese, as well as expatriates in other parts of the world, to demand a complete withdrawal by Syria. Red and white scarves — the colors of the Lebanese flag — have become a national symbol of a “peaceful uprising for independence.”

Patriarch Sfeir

Lebanon’s need for sovereignty, freedom and independence from the hegemony of Syria has been championed by Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir and was the focus of his meetings late January with Pope John Paul II and French President Jacques Chirac. He also met with U.N. Envoy Terje Roed Larsen during Larsen’s visit to Lebanon just days before Hariri was killed.

In a special meeting of the Maronite Council of Bishops summoned by Patriarch Sfeir the day after Hariri’s death, the bishops declared in a statement, “The assassination of the martyr Hariri, that occurred after many assassinations of leaders in Lebanon … shows that the plan of a dictatorial regime was used to behead the leaders in each country they target so as to leave the population without a leader in order to subdue it and enslave it.

“To be affiliated to a sovereign, independent and free Lebanon is the only sure guarantee to all Lebanese,” the statement said.

Aside from his achievements in reconstructing Beirut, Hariri was praised by the bishops for his “international relations in the West and in the East” and his benevolence in providing educational and cultural opportunities for Lebanese youth.

“What I think is that maybe Lebanon has to pass through a passion to arrive to the resurrection,” said Father Georges Saab, a Maronite priest in Bhersaf.

Referring to the unity expressed in the country as a “‘white’ revolution without armies,” he said he believes “it’s impossible to return to the war, but maybe now it’s a political war to arrive to independence.”

Asked about the possibility of a return to violence, former president Gemayel said, “As long as the Lebanese are united, who fights whom? It’s an era when people fighting each other is over. Now, people are fighting all together for their independence and freedom.”

Many Lebanese citizens agree.

“When I heard the awful news, I grieved. But I felt that something good is going to happen to Lebanon,” said Monique Gideon, a Melkite Catholic from Rabieh. “I know that God and Our Lady will answer our prayer, and we’ll be able to prove to the whole world that Muslims and Christians can live together.”

Doreen Abi Raad writes from

Bikfaya, Lebanon.