BEIRUT – Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese turned the funeral Thursday for a slain Christian government minister into a massive demonstration of anger against Syria and its allies.
The sprawling funeral for Pierre Gemayel reinvigorated suporters of the U.S.-backed government in a power struggle with Syrian-backed Hezbollah and its allies threatening to split this small Mideast nations along sectarian lines. Police estimated some 800,000 people participated in the rally and funeral.
"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 downtown Beirut, 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, wrapped in the flag of Gemayel's 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.
The crowd poured out their anger at neighboring Syria, which dominated Lebanon for 29 years until it was forced to pull its troops out last year in the wake of the assassination of another anti-Syrian politician, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many blame Syria for the killings of Hariri, Gemayel and other anti-Syrian figures but Damascus denies the charges.
The head of the Maronite Church, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, urged unity to save the country, addressing family members and dignitaries in the congregation including France's foreign minister and the Arab League secretary general.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the country's top Shiite politician and a major ally of Hezbollah, 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 Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, 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, 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."
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 security was heavy amid fears that protesters would later march there to attempt to force the president to resign.
Anger was also directed at Hezbollah, which had been calling for mass protests of its own in an effort to topple Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's anti-Syrian government. After Gemayel's killing, the guerrilla group said it would not hold demonstrations for the time being — but it will likely feel the need to respond with its own show of strength after Thursday's funeral.
"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 for 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 Hariri, a Sunni Muslim slain in a massive bomb blast in Beirut in February 2005.
"Lebanese unity, consecrated by the blood of Rafik Hariri and Pierre Gemayel ... and all the martyrs to freedom, is stronger than their 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, but not 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. Anti-Syrian politicians were subsequently 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 trial 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 demand the government be changed to give them more power, threatening a street campaign to bring it down if their demands are not met. Saniora has also asked the United Nations for technical help in finding Gemayel's killers.