Pope condemns assassination of leading Catholic politician

.- Speaking at the conclusion of his weekly General Audience this morning, Pope Benedict XVI strongly criticized the recent assassination of Lebanese Catholic politician Pierre Gemayel, and offered spiritual support for Gemayel’s family and the Lebanese people.

"I firmly condemn this brutal attack," the Pontiff said, "and give assurances of my prayers and my spiritual closeness to the family in mourning, and to the beloved Lebanese people.”

“In the face of the dark forces that seek to destroy the country,” the Pope continued, “I invite all Lebanese not to allow themselves to be overcome by hatred, but to reinforce national unity, justice and reconciliation, and to work together to build a future of peace. Finally, I invite leaders of the nations that have the fate of this region at heart to contribute to finding a global negotiated solution to the various situations of injustice that have existed for too many years."

Gemayel, who was serving as the Lebanese Industry Minister, was shot dead on Tuesday near Beirut.  The Industry Minister was part of a prominent Maronite Catholic political family. Both his father, Amin Gemayel, and uncle, Bachir Gemayel, were elected to the Lebanese Presidency, though his uncle was assassinated prior to taking office in 1982.

Gemayel, 34, was known as an outspoken critic of growing Syrian influences on his country. The assassination has rallied the country’s anti-Syrian coalition to demonstrate against the pro-Damascus opposition, led by Hezbollah. Thousands are expected at his funeral tomorrow, which will be held at St. George Cathedral in the Lebanese capital.  The funeral Mass will be celebrated by Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir.

The assassination threatens to shake country into further turmoil.   The once peaceful country, where Christians and Muslims seemed to have worked out a system of successful coexistence, continues to fight off the growing influence of extreme Muslim factions, promoted by Syria.

Agence France-Presse reported that Lebanon called for a three-day period of national mourning. Independence Day celebrations Nov. 23 were also called off.

According to a Reuters report, at least three gunmen rammed their car into Gemayel's vehicle, then leapt out and riddled it with bullets. They fired at Gemayel with silencer-equipped automatic weapons at point-blank range in the Christian Sin el-Fil neighborhood, witnesses told reporters. Gemayel was rushed to a hospital, where he later died of his wounds.

“This [assassination] is turning modern Lebanese politics into a graveyard,” Chibli Mallat, a visiting professor at Princeton University and a Lebanese lawyer and activist, told the New York Times. “It’s a tragic family history.”

Gemayel was elected to parliament in 2000 and again in 2005. He was a member of the Christian Phalange (or Kataeb) Party, founded by his grandfather.

Gemayel is the third prominent Lebanese anti-Syrian figure to be assassinated since Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri's killing in February 2005.

Saad al-Hariri, the son of the assassinated former prime minister, blamed Syria for the killing, though Damascus has denied it.