Tense Lebanon Prepares for Gemayel's Funeral

Mourners carry the coffin of Pierre Gemayel past his portrait in his hometown of Bikfaya. i i

Mourners carry the coffin of Pierre Gemayel past his portrait in his hometown of Bikfaya. Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images
Mourners carry the coffin of Pierre Gemayel past his portrait in his hometown of Bikfaya.

Mourners carry the coffin of Pierre Gemayel past his portrait in his hometown of Bikfaya.

Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images

Lebanese Christians converge on the mountain town of Bikfaya ahead of Thursday's funeral for Pierre Gemayel, a cabinet minister assassinated in Beirut Tuesday.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Hundreds of people in Lebanon traveled to a Christian village in the hills above Beirut today to mourn the slain cabinet minister, Pierre Gemayel. Hundreds of thousands may turn tomorrow for his funeral in Beirut. Anti-Syrian politicians are blaming Syria for Gemayel's assassination and they warn that more killings could be on the way.

NPR's Peter Kenyon begins our coverage.

PETER KENYON: On a clear autumn day in the hillside town of Bikfaya, politicians, dignitaries and wave after wave of nuns and priests filed into the Gemayel home. Inside the former President Amin Gemayel, Pierre's father, greeted visitors while the nuns sang and said prayers over the coffin.

(Soundbite of singing)

KENYON: Schools and many shops were already closed for Lebanon's Independence Day holiday, but those celebrations were canceled as the period of mourning for Pierre Gemayel began. The family continued to call for calm, even as the government made preparations to bring huge numbers of people to Beirut tomorrow for the funeral.

After viewing the casket, 38-year-old Elias Makiver(ph) called the assassination a crime against all of Lebanon's young, not just the 34-year-old Gemayel. Yes, he said, he wanted the funeral to be peaceful, but yes, he also worried that provocateurs might try to stir up violence. When asked if he thinks the future holds political dialogue or more confrontation, he considered the question.

Mr. ELIAS MAKIVER: If you mean internal dialogue, there is always hope for internal dialogue. The problem is we cannot dialogue with a regime that only knows murder as a message. You cannot dialogue with people who will kill you.

KENYON: And by regime, do you mean -

Mr. MAKIVER: Of course, the Syrian regime. Who else?

KENYON: In a country where politics fracture along sometimes hidden fault lines and alliances shift and reform constantly, no one wants to believe that these assassins were homegrown. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is asking the United Nations to investigate the Gemayel killing in addition to the 14 other attacks it's already looking into, starting with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.

Within Lebanon's Christian community, the Gemayel killing has aggravated a rift that appeared when Michele Aoun, head of the largest Christian block in Parliament, split from the government to form an alliance with the opposition, led by Hezbollah. In some areas, posters of Aoun were burned and police had to restrain angry Christians from attacking his party offices.

In Shiite neighborhoods, meanwhile, the response to the assassination has been muted as people wait to see how Hezbollah and its allies respond to the heightened tensions. In a small shop in a Shiite neighborhood of West Beirut, Hussein Ismael worked the cash register and said of course Shiites were also saddened by Gemayel's killing. But he didn't think it would stop the opposition from trying to topple the government.

Mr. HUSSEIN ISMAEL: (Through Translator) There were many rumors. One of the rumors I heard is that the two sides came to an agreement and this happened. But obviously nothing is going to happen immediately. But I don't think that this is going to stop the opposition from going to the streets eventually.

KENYON: A short time later, Ibrahim Moussaoui, the editor of Hezbollah's newspaper, told Al-Jazeera that opposition protests are indeed likely, although the opposition might wait until the shock of Gemayel's assassination has been absorbed.

Mr. IBRAHIM MOUSSAOUI (Editor, Hezbollah Newspaper): They want to put off political measures, civil measures, in order to bring down this government. Sit ins, demonstrations, all of the things that are organized and sanctioned by the constitution. I believe this is what democracy is all about.

KENYON: For the remaining cabinet ministers and the elected government of Lebanon, however, democracy at the moment is largely about being surrounded by heavily armed security details and fearing for their lives every time they go out in public. Finding the killers of Pierre Gemayel seems a distant prospect at best, but Lebanon's political crisis won't wait that long.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut.

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