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Killing of Lebanese cabinet minister stirs up Christian fears

The normally jammed-packed streets of Beirut during rush hour were even more frantic as residents scrambled following the news that Christian politician Pierre Gemayel had been gunned down and killed in the streets of a Beirut suburb.

Horns blared, sirens screeched and a thick air of apprehension took hold as people struggled with the news on 21 November. For a while, many mobile phones were inoperable as hordes of people tried to dial out at once.

The 34-year-old’s cabinet minister’s killing was especially jarring for some in the diverse Christian community here, and reaction was a mixture of anger, disbelief and fear that the assassination will lead to more violence.

"Of course, whenever somebody dies like this it is a loss for the Christian community and for the country," said Mary Mikhael, president of the Near East School of Theology located in Beirut. "The sense of loss is there, but also the sense of fear and anxiety." She noted, "Every time something happens we think this is the last time, and then it is repeated again."

Mikhael’s school is an interdenominational institution within the Protestant community. "It is very frustrating and very sad," he said.

Gemayel, the industry minister who was a Maronite Catholic, was shot at point-blank range in the Beirut suburb. The cabinet minister was a supporter of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, and the killing has heightened political tensions that were already near boiling point.

Pro-Syrian factions led by Hezbollah have been in a power struggle to gain more authority in Lebanon’s fragile coalition government. At the same time, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government has backed a United Nations’ international tribunal into the alleged Syrian participation in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

All of this comes soon after the 34-day conflict between Hezbollah and Israel in July and August, a clash that left South Lebanon’s infrastructure, in particular, crippled and the whole country emotionally traumatized.

"We have had enough," said Suad Hajj Nassif, director of the humanitarian relief arm of the Middle East Council of Churches, an ecumenical body that represents several Christian denominations.

The expectation is "that this will bring something else, something bad, because people will react to this," said Nassif, whose staff has been actively responding to the aftermath of the Israeli-Hezbollah crisis. "We are afraid that this will lead to internal problems." She added, "Now, the situation is critical."

The Rev. Salim Sahiouny, president of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon, said he hopes the assignation will not lead an already "segregated" Christian community to "more disintegration and less cooperation."

(c) Ecumenical News International