CAIRO The head of the most influential school of Sunni Islam added his voice Monday to international and Arab criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's assault on protesters, describing the bloodshed as a human tragedy that must stop.
A five-month crackdown on protests in Syria has emerged as one of the bloodiest episodes in the wave of unrest sweeping the Arab world. The violence has escalated sharply in the past week with tank assaults on two mainly Sunni cities.
Other Arab countries, which had been slow to criticize a fellow Arab state, abruptly distanced themselves from Assad on Monday, with Saudi Arabia and others announcing they were recalling their ambassadors from Damascus.
A statement from Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of Cairo-based al-Azhar, a university and clerical body that has been a central seat of Sunni scholarship since the Middle Ages, said the body owed it to the Syrian people to "clearly announce matters have gone beyond the limit."
"This is a human tragedy that cannot be accepted," Tayeb said in the statement carried by Egypt's state news agency MENA. "Blood was shed, families were split up ... and unarmed people are being fought with live ammunition, iron and fire."
"Blood only fuels the fires of revolutions," Tayeb said, calling on Syrian authorities to immediately stop the bloodshed and respond to the "legitimate demands of the people."
(Reporting by Dina Zayed)