Sunnis and Shias pray together at protest


LEBANON:Sunnis and Shias performed joint communal prayers yesterday at Riad Solh Square in the heart of the Lebanese capital.

Thousands of men and women and a few children formed ranks in two wide corridors between tented compounds erected by opposition protesters calling for a national unity government or fresh parliamentary elections.

As bells tolled at a nearby church, the sermon on brotherhood and unity delivered by Sunni Shaikh Fathi Yeken echoed round the square.

Mona Jalloul, a Shia woman from Haret Hreik in south Beirut, said the opposition was demanding freedom and clean government.

Hawra Habhab, an elegant young woman in Indian shirt, trousers and headscarf observed: "We have to fight on all levels, not just with arms. We must fight on the political level for good government and must fight for education so we can serve our country."

She plans to study geology and petrology at the American University of Beirut.

When the final words of the sermon died away, the imam, the leader of the prayer, intoned the Fatihah, the first verse of the Koran, opening the formal service of worship.

This was the second pray-in during the opposition's ongoing popular campaign, which began nine days ago. Last Sunday Christians of all sects attended a service at nearby St George's church. This will be repeated tomorrow.

In a rousing address on Thursday night Hizbullah secretary general Hassan Nasrullah called upon prime minister Fuad Siniora to open a dialogue with the opposition.

Sheikh Nasrullah said the demonstration was not meant to topple the government but to press for a national unity cabinet under Mr Siniora.

"But," the Hizbullah leader warned, "soon we will not listen anymore [ to what you say] and will not accept any one of you" in a new government.

He said that the opposition would not be dragged into a sectarian war with Sunnis "even if you kill a thousand of us".

He said: "We will not raise our weapons against anyone in Lebanon. Our weapons have been raised only against our Israeli enemy."

The speech was broadcast on Lebanese television as well as Arab satellite channels.

Sheikh Nasrullah said a national unity government was "the only means to prevent foreign tutelage from any quarter . . . and ensure that we have Lebanese decision-making".

He said he and his allies rejected "any tutelage from any party, whether it is the enemy, brother or friend".

He accused Mr Siniora of ordering the Lebanese army to seize weapons destined for Hizbullah while it was fighting Israel and charged unnamed ministers with asking Israel to destroy the movement "because the Lebanese could not" perform this task.

Mr Siniora has rejected Hizbullah's accusations and charged the opposition with threatening a coup.