BEIRUT, Lebanon – Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese flooded downtown Beirut on Thursday to mourn a slain Christian politician and vent anger at Syria, gearing up for a potentially explosive fight over power with the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah and other allies of Damascus.
Church bells tolled and women threw flowers and rice on Pierre Gemayel’s coffin, draped in the flag of his Phalange Party, as it was passed hand to hand over the dense crowd of mourners outside St. Georges Cathedral.
Nearby in Martyrs’ Square, a throng of supporters, estimated at 800,000 by police, turned the funeral into a mass show of force in support of the beleaguered U.S.-backed government, which is dominated by opponents of Syrian influence in its smaller neighbor.
Amid a sea of Lebanese flags, demonstrators chanted slogans against Syria, which they accuse of killing Gemayel, and burned pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his top ally in Lebanon, President Emile Lahoud.
“We want revenge – from Lahoud and Bashar,” the crowd chanted.
The assassination of Gemayel, the 34-year-old industry minister, in a bold daytime shooting Tuesday has dramatically raised the risk of turmoil in Lebanon, which the United States considers a key front in its attempt to stem Syrian and Iranian influence in the Middle East.
Many fear Lebanon’s political power struggle could move into the streets, at a time when the country is the most polarized since the 1975-90 civil war – divided between anti-Syrian Christians and Sunni Muslims and pro-Syrian Shiites. Each community accounts for roughly a third of the population of 4 million.
The funeral rally energized supporters of the Lebanese government, who vowed to oust Lahoud and seal the anti-Syrian bloc’s full control of Lebanon’s politics.
“The second independence uprising for change was launched today and it will not stop,” Gemayel’s father, Amin, told the crowd in Martyrs’ Square, speaking from behind bulletproof glass around the podium.
“I pledge to you that we will soon take steps so your efforts will not be in vain,” he added.
But they face the powerful Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran and by most Shiites. Hezbollah, which in the past has brought out crowds of hundreds of thousands, has threatened its own mass protests aimed at bringing down the government.
After Gemayel’s death, Hezbollah put off its threatened demonstrations for now, but will likely feel the need to respond with a show of strength after Thursday’s funeral rally.
Despite the anger at the protest, many said they did not want a renewal of bloodshed and sectarian strife. Omar Farhat, a 35-year-old Phalange supporter, said he hoped the assassination would bring unity among Lebanese.
“Otherwise, it’s the end of Lebanon,” he said.
Business and industry leaders announced they would go on a two-day strike beginning today to pressure politicians from both sides to sit down and talk to settle the political crisis.