After the former Lebanese ambassador to the United States was killed on Friday, analysts wondered if it was a sign that the war in Syria is spreading to Lebanon. NPR’s Rima Marrouch attended Mohamad Chatah’s funeral in Beirut Sunday and sent us this report.
Amidst tight security, the former Lebanese Ambassador to the United States Mohamad Chatah was laid to rest today in Beirut.
Chatah, who was also the country’s former minister of finance, left almost like he lived, without gathering large crowds. Just a few hundred people attended his funeral at the blue-dome Mohamed Al-Amin Mosque in downtown Beirut, not far from where the was killed on Friday due to a car bomb.
The crowd included Sunni community from different social classes: political elite, well-educated middle and upper class but also the poorer families from Chatah’s hometown of Tripoli attended.
A group of young men changed Anti-Hezbollah slogans: “There is no God but God and Hezbollah is the enemy of God.” Many among the Sunni community are blaming the Shiite group for the assassination.
The hostility toward Hezbollah was clear. Naser Aloush, from north Lebanon, who attended the funeral, said he perceived Chatah as a moderate person. He accused Hezbollah of killing Chatah.
“They don’t want that. They want to destroy everything that is moderate in Lebanon so they can control the country,” he said, referring to Hezbollah. “[They] and Bashar Al-Assad. That is what they want.”
Dozens of people arrived from Chatah’s hometown of Tripoli. Some identified themselves openly as fighters in the Bab Al-Tebaneh area.
The Sunni Muslim Bab Al-Tabaneh district in northern Tripoli witnesses regular clashes between Sunni Muslim residents and Alawaite residents of Jabal Mohsen, who largely support Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Mohammad Zahra, who had a beard and no mustache, a sign of following a Salafi interpretation of Islam, came on a bus from Tripoli with crutches. He said he was wounded during his fight in the Alawite area of Jabal Mohsen.
“He is the son of my hometown and a son of the same Sunni community,” Zahra said. “He was a man of great intellect. Syria and Hezbollah don’t want people like that to live because they give a good picture of Lebanon.”
A group of men dressed in black gathered in front of the mosque. They also came from Tripoli. Khaldoun Hijazi, 24, a merchant wanted to speak.
“He represented us as Sunnis,” he said. “As for the tension and the escalation, we are taking it into consideration. We are ready for death. We don’t care about Hezbollah’s threats and weapons.”
Former Lebanese Prime minister Fuad Seniora struck a defiant tone during the funeral vowing to “liberate Lebanon from illegal arms,” hinting at the weapons outside government control held by Hezbollah.
During his sermon, the Mufti of Tripoli Sheikh Malek al-Shaar spoke about Chatah as a symbol for moderation, adding that Lebanon will not deter from this path.
“We will not fall back from the path of building a country and civilization and human value,” he said. “We will not retreat from that and adopt vague ideas or takfiri or terrorist thoughts. We will stand against all kinds of murder, destruction, and bloodshed. Lebanese will know that one day right will prevail. Moderation will prevail and the sound of reason will return. Lebanon will not abandon these values.”
But the reactions to the sermon were mixed.
“We don’t have moderation in Lebanon. Moderation doesn’t suit Hezbollah,” Mohammad Zahra said. “As a Sunni community we hope our MPs, politicians, and leaders take us into consideration. From the time Rafik Al-Hariri was killed we are losing one man after the other. It is enough. They (Sunni leaders) are still thinking of moderation. Enough, let them arm the Sunni community. We want arms. We just need arms. Until here is enough.”
Chatah had been calling for the need to keep Lebanon’s neutrality regarding the conflict in Syria. He made that point during an interview he granted to Sawt Lebnan, a Lebanese radio station, shortly before his death.
“Our major task is to keep the neutrality of Lebanon and protect it from what is happening in Syria, … We cannot speak about a sovereign state when we have weapons in the hands of certain groups within it,” he said referring to Hezbollah’s arsenal.
Chatah’s last tweet, posted 30 minutes before the explosion, read: “Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security & foreign matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years.”
The Syrian army was stationed in Lebanon for years and the Syrian government was the de facto decision maker in Lebanon.
Khalil Gebara, a professor at American University in Beirut, who knew Chatah personally since 2006, told NPR that despite a very impressive resume, “Dr. Chatah is one of the few humble Lebanese politicians you can met. He was one of the few remaining Lebanese politicians who genuinely believed in dialogue. He was always accessible to discuss with him new ideas around reforms: political, social, economic. He was inspiring for many people in different ways. As a character, as a personality, he was not in the habit of being in convoys. When he was killed he was in his car only with his driver.”