BEIRUT: Lebanon's Sunni and Shiite religious and political leaders scrambled Saturday night to defuse sectarian tensions after supporters of Hezbollah and Amal groups chanted insults at historic Islamic figures revered by Sunnis during protests in Beirut.
The chanting came during a protest in Beirut over the country's political and economic crises as well as to call for disarming Shiite Hezbollah.
The protest drew in hundreds of activists as well as supporters of mainly anti-Hezbollah groups in Downtown Beirut. As protesters clashed with soldiers and riot police, dozens of Hezbollah and Amal supporters from the nearby Khandaq al-Ghamiq neighborhood tried to clash with the protesters but were thwarted by Army soldiers.
In the melee that followed in the area and nearby neighborhoods, the Hezbollah and Amal supporters chanted insults to one of Prophet Mohammad's wives, Aysha, and other historic figures revered by Sunnis.
With videos of the incidents going viral on social media, some residents in mainly Sunni districts of the capital and other towns across Lebanon took to the streets, blocking roads. Gunfire was reported in several areas but no major security incidents were immediately confirmed.
Dar al-Fatwa, the highest Sunni religious authority in the country, urged calm and warned Muslims against "falling in the trap of sectarian and religious sedition." It said all those who cursed Aysha were ignorant people who needed education in the true values of Islam.
The highest Shiite religious authority Imam Abdul Amir Qabalan condemned the chants, saying such insults were banned religiously, describing what happened as "suspicious attempts to evoke sectarian sedition among the Lebanese and to strike at their national and religious unity.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri backed the statements of Dar al-Fatwa and Qabalan, and urged citizens to avoid any reaction that could threaten the country's civic peace.
"I appeal to all countrymen in all regions to follow the call of Dar al-Fatwa and warn the Muslim public against falling into the trap of sectarian strife."
Hezbollah also denounced the chants, saying in a statement it rejects any acts that would divide Muslims and lead to sectarian tensions.
A tense standoff was also reported in a Christian-Shiite area associated with the start of the country's 1975-90 Civil War, the Shiyah-Ain al-Rummaneh area, prompting security forces to deploy in large numbers.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab also weighed in on the tensions, writing on Twitter: "The prime minister condemns and denounces in the strongest terms, all sectarian slogans ... and calls on all Lebanese and their political and spiritual leaders to exercise awareness and wisdom and cooperate with the Army and security services."
At least 48 protesters were injured in clashes with soldiers and riot police during Saturday's protest.