Beirut mosque potent symbol of troubles

By Tom Perry, Reuters

BEIRUT — The sky-blue dome and towering minarets of Beirut’s Mohammad al-Amin mosque, which opened on Friday, are potent symbols of Lebanon’s turbulent recent past.

The mosque financed by Rafik al-Hariri and built with stone from Saudi Arabia stands next to the grave of the former prime minister, whose 2005 assassination pitched Lebanon into three years of political crisis and sectarian strife.

Hariri’s political heir, Saad, led his Sunni Muslim followers in the first prayers at the mosque, Lebanon’s largest. The thousands of worshippers included prominent Sunni Muslim figures from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jerusalem.

Completed in 2005, the mosque’s opening had been postponed because of the paralysing crisis which brought Lebanon’s Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims into conflict and pushed the country to the brink of a new civil war.

Dominating the skyline of a city still rebuilding from its 1975-90 conflict, the Mohammad al-Amin mosque has served as the backdrop for waves of mass protests that have altered the course of politics over the past three years.

Hariri’s followers used the occassion to put on another show of support for their leader, who inherited his father’s mantle as Lebanon’s strongest Sunni politician.

Before he was killed by a massive truck bomb, Rafik al-Hariri had personally overseen aspects of the construction, including the selection the shade of blue for the ceramic dome.

Known locally as the Hariri mosque, it was to be a focal point of the central Beirut commercial district whose reconstruction was driven by the billionaire businessman.

“I was the project director but in reality I was executing the ideas and plans of the real project director, Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri,” project director Wahbi Sirhal said.

The minarets, 72 meters high, are based on those of Mecca’s Grand Mosque. The dome is inspired by Ottoman mosques which were in turn influenced by Istanbul’s Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya.

But the size and style of the Mohammad al-Amin mosque, situated on a corner of the central Martyrs Square, have drawn complaints from critics who say it is out of place in a city peppered with less imposing mosques and churches.Some have said its design smacks of triumphalism and is an insensitive choice for a city rebuilding from a civil war that shook Lebanon’s model of sectarian coexistence.

Others have said its height is an affront to Maronite Christians whose neighbouring Cathedral of Saint Georges has been dwarfed by the mosque’s minarets.

“It’s too big for a capital of Beirut’s size,” said one art critic, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.