SIDON, Lebanon: Tensions ran high Sunday between members of the Sunni and Shiite communities in and around Sidon after clergy from the sects exchanged a round of insults over the weekend.
Just days before the commemoration of Ashura reaches its climax, Sunni Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Asir voiced fierce criticism of Shiites and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah during Friday prayers in the town of Abra near Sidon.
Although the accusations were condemned by several clergymen from both sects Sunday, Lebanese Army units heavily deployed in Sidon to prevent the tension from spilling onto the streets.
“Why should we always remain silent to the insults they [Shiites] make against Sunni religious figures?” Sheikh Asir was reported as saying during prayers last week.
According to several people who attended the prayers, Asir criticized Shiites for insulting Aisha Bint Abu Bakr, known in history as the favorite wife of the Prophet Mohammad.
Asir accused a local Shiite sheikh of insulting Aisha in an interview on Al-Manar last week.
Tension surrounding Ashura ceremonies also reached Khaldeh over the weekend after Sunni residents were angered by a group of Shiite carrying black flags for Ashura. The dispute between Sunnis and Shiites in Khaldeh turned into a confrontation between stick-wielding locals, leaving four people injured.
Security sources told The Daily Star that three young men and a young woman were hospitalized after the incident. The source also said that Internal Security Forces personnel set up checkpoints to arrest the perpetrators involved the clash.
Shiite and Sunni clergymen called for restraint Sunday and said Muslims would remain united despite the recent tension in the country and the ongoing instability in neighboring Syria.
“Such comments [by Sheikh Asir] do not belong to the Sunni sect ... we and Sunnis are one,” Shiite Sheikh Hussein Srour told reporters during an Ashura gathering in Sidon.
Sunni Sheikh Salim Sousan also condemned the tensions, saying that the Lebanese would not succumb to sectarian strife.
“We will work to maintain the unity of this nation and so that its people live in peace,” said Sousan during a news conference Sunday.
Sousan, who had earlier received a telephone call from Speaker Nabih Berri to discuss the tension, said that Dar al-Fatwa has addressed the recent disputes and is working to strengthen inter-Muslim unity.
But speeches during daily gatherings to mark Ashura are fueling tension among Sunnis and Shiites over opposing views on the developments in Syria.
Several Hezbollah MPs have accused the March 14 coalition of wagering regime change in Syria would target the regional alliance of Hezbollah and its resistance against Israel.
During a ceremony to mark Ashura at the southern town of Shehabieh, Marjayoun-Hasbaya MP Ali Fayyad said that March 14 politicians do not want reform in Syria to succeed – rather, they are hoping to see a new Syrian regime that would abandon the resistance and break its ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Palestinian cause.
“This is what the head of the Syrian National Council Burhan Ghalioun has said, in clarifying the political stances of the council,” said Fayyad.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Ghalioun said that breaking the exceptional relationship with Iran after the fall of the Syrian regime would change its relationship with Hezbollah.
Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil also criticized the March 14 coalition for failing to criticize Israel for its daily violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty.
“Confrontation with Israel is an open confrontation ... this message is to those who have abandoned this struggle and consider it normal,” said Khalil, speaking after Israel detonated surveillance devices in the south Friday.
Speaking at an Ashura banquet over the weekend, Khalil said that the March 14 coalition “considers Israeli violations a minor thing and they concentrate on the so-called violations on the northern border [Syrian incursions] and exploit them for narrow political gains.”
Khalil also condemned the escalating sectarian rhetoric and said any tension between two Lebanese sects would definitely serve Israeli interests. “The plan of many [in March 14] failed last week, after the government avoided a collapse,” Khalid added.
Despite criticism by the March 8 coalition of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s support of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the government transferred Lebanon’s annual financial dues to the STL.