BEIRUT (AFP) – In central Beirut, where Christian and Shiite opposition factions have been demonstrating against the anti-Syrian government for 24 days, Christmas trees are serving as political symbols for each side.
On Martyrs’ Square, supporters of the Damascus-backed Shiite militant movement Hezbollah together with Christian followers of former general Michel Aoun have set up a large Christmas tree illuminated with bulbs in the opposition colors of yellow, orange and green.
Despite their religious differences, Hezbollah supporters helped Christian protesters decorate the tree in a sign of unity between the traditionally pro- and anti-Syrian camps.
“I know the traditions of Christmas. Every year we visit our Christian neighbors, but this was the first time I helped decorate a Christmas tree,” said Bilal, a member of Hezbollah’s security service.
The fresh-faced Shiite from southern Lebanon is also fully informed of the protesters’ holiday program.
“After gifts are given out, there will be a recital, then midnight mass at St. George’s Cathedral, and on Christmas Day a giant yule log will be brought into the encampment,” he said.
The protesters have flocked from various corners of Lebanon to the tent city set up around the government’s offices since the demonstration began on December 1. The sight of young women with flowing hair and tight jeans mingling with conservatively veiled Shiite women has become common.
Beshara Khalil, a leader of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, is proud of what has been accomplished.
“The opposition has succeeded in creating a brotherhood between Shiites from the south and Christians so that together they can demand an end to Western tutelage,” he said.
The United States, Britain, France and Germany are among the Western states that have expressed support for the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority elected in 2005.
“This is the first time we have seen this level of mixing in Lebanon,” said protester Um Ali, a tobacco farmer whose tanned cheeks are lined by the harsh sun of southern Lebanon.
“The Islamic-Christian antagonism that led to the civil war (1975-1990) is definitely in the past,” she said.
But a few dozen meters (yards) away, the coalition of anti-Syrian parties known as “March 14” has set up its own line of 12 Christmas trees to commemorate prominent Damascus critics who have been killed in mysterious circumstances in recent years.
Several trees are labeled with the names of “martyrs of the Cedar Revolution,” a reference to the mass anti-Syrian protests last year that forced the withdrawal of longtime powerbroker Syria after a 29-year military presence.
The trees have been set up behind the imposing Mohammed al-Amin mosque, where slain former prime minister Rafiq Hariri is buried. The prominent five-time premier was assassinated in a February 2005 bomb blast that also killed 22 others.
One of the trees stands in Hariri’s name, and another is for Pierre Gemayel, the 34-year-old anti-Syrian industry minister who was gunned down in broad daylight last month.
Their deaths have been widely blamed on Syria, although Damascus has denied involvement.
Massive portraits of Gemayel are hung next to images of anti-Syrian MP and newspaper boss Gibran Tueni, who was killed in December 2005 and also has a tree in his name.
And there are other trees to commemorate the killings over the past 30 years of anti-Syrian Muslim and Christian political leaders including Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt, Christian leader Bashir Gemayel and Sunni mufti Hassan Khaled.
Near a tree in the name of her slain husband, the journalist Samir Kassir who was killed by a bomb in June 2005, his widow Gisele Khoury vowed to pursue justice.
“The murderers will not be allowed to terrorize those who support Lebanese sovereignty, and we will make them pay for their crimes before an international tribunal,” she said.
The matter of whether to approve such a tribunal, which has been recommended by the United Nations as part of an ongoing probe into the Hariri assassination, provoked the resignation in November of six pro-Syrian ministers.
The majority has accused the pro-Syrian opposition of aiming to block an international court which would try Syrian suspects and their Lebanese allies in the Hariri case.
Sarah, 22, laid a red rose at the ground near the tree for Kassir, who was her journalism professor.
“We have forgotten to place a tree here in memory of the hundreds of thousands of anonymous victims from all of Lebanon’s years of war,” she said.