By Borzou Daragahi
Beirut - They had no blessing from the government. No politician in a big black SUV bankrolled them. None of the television stations controlled by political parties publicized their efforts.
And no cleric preached their cause at the pulpit.
Yet on Sunday morning, thousands of Lebanese, drawn by a largely informal campaign on Facebook and other Internet sites, marched through the heart of Beirut to demand that religion be excised from politics, a rare assertion of secularism in a region increasingly defined by religious identity.
"I don't believe religion and politics should be mixed," said Amer Saidi, 28, a student of political science at Lebanese American University, who joined as many as 5,000 people beneath a gleaming blue sky for what many considered the nation's first "secular pride" demonstration. "Religion should not be used as a political tool."
Saidi said he was born a Shiite Muslim but considers himself agnostic. He vowed to strike his religion from his national identity card, an option recently permitted by Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, a champion of nonprofit organizations and other civil groups that organized the march.
Many at the demonstration, which finished at a boisterous rally before the parliament building, said they were there in reaction to Lebanon's unique government system, which divvies up the nation's political spoils among leaders of the diverse religious communities.
"What's your sect?" read one poster held up by marchers, mimicking a common question in a country where government jobs or university posts are granted or denied by institutions run as sectarian fiefs. "None of your business," the poster continued.
"This type of system has brought only war and chaos," said Yasser Andari, an architect and member of Lebanon's Druze community, as he attended the rally with his 1½-year-old son, Adam, perched on his shoulders. "We want a government that looks at all people as people."