Mon, Feb 21, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Lebanese unite in mourning Hariri

AP , BEIRUT, LEBANON

Lebanese of all faiths on Saturday take part, for the third night in a row, in a peaceful candle-light vigil against violence at the site of the massive explosion in which Lebanon's former premier Rafiq Hariri was killed along with 14 other people in central Beirut on Feb. 14.

PHOTO: AFP

At the flower-strewn grave of Rafik Hariri, a woman made the sign of the cross next to a man who spread his hands and solemnly recited the "fatiha," the first verse of Islam's holy book, the Quran.

It was an extraordinary scene in a country where Christians and Muslims have feuded for centuries and fought a bitter, 15-year civil war -- a sign perhaps that the Lebanese finally are learning to live at peace with each other. Ironically it took the assassination of Hariri, the nation's most prominent politician, to accomplish that.

After the murder last Monday of the Sunni Muslim former prime minister, and especially at his funeral two days later, Christians, Muslims and Druse came together in a vivid manifestation of unity rare in Lebanon's violent, sectarian-charged history. Christian and Muslim areas alike shut down during the three-day period of mourning.

"Maybe our great loss in his death will lead to the unity of the Lebanese people,"' said Abdul-Halim Shehab, a grocer in Beirut's Hamra district.

"His grave has brought people together. We hope that this national unity continues. Nobody likes to see his country divided," Shehab said.

There were immediate predictions that Hariri's slaying would bring an explosion of sectarian violence but -- at least so far -- the Lebanese have proved the pessimists wrong.

Instead of turning on each other, they turned against Syria, which maintains 15,000 troops in Lebanon and holds sway over the country's politics through allies in the Lebanese government. In an unprecedented show of defiance, the hundreds of thousands of mourners marching behind Hariri's casket chanted "Syria out" and slogans against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The slaying of a Lebanese political leader is not at all rare. During the 1975-1990 civil war, the country lost two men elected president, a prime minister and the Sunni Muslim spiritual leader.

The 1977 assassination of Druse leader Kamal Jumblatt led to the killing of hundreds of Christians. In 1982, after the murder of the Christian president-elect Bashir Gemayel, his militia allies massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camp.

Although many Lebanese remain divided over Syria's role in their country and the issue will continue to boil between the pro-Syrian government and the opposition, the split is along political rather than religious lines. Both pro- and anti-Syrian camps have Christian, Druse and Muslim politicians -- a relief from the days of political sectarianism.

"His blood united all of Lebanon," said Walid Jumblatt, a close ally of Hariri who has accused the Syrian government and its Lebanese allies of engineering the killing.

"What they did not take into consideration, those criminals in the Lebanese and Syrian intelligence services, is that they did not know that the Lebanese people were united behind Rafik Hariri," said Jumblatt, who inherited leadership of the Druse sect at the death of his father, Kamal Jumblatt.

Syria and the allied Lebanese government have denied involvement in the massive bombing that killed Hariri and 16 others, including his bodyguards and bystanders. Both governments tried to picture the killing as an attempt by unknown enemies to reignite Christian-Muslim violence.

But at the funeral, the emotional outpouring of sympathy cut across political and religious lines. Tolling church bells mixed with Islamic prayers along the procession route. Catholic nuns and Muslim clerics came to pray and pay respects. Young and old marched hand in hand.

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