DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian dignitaries buried a divisive pro-government cleric at the capital’s ancient Ummayyad Mosque on Saturday, choosing a site near the famous Muslim warrior Saladin and sparking outrage among Syrian opposition activists.
Mohammed al-Buti, the government-appointed imam of the ancient Ummayyed Mosque, died in a Thursday night bomb attack on a neighborhood mosque that also killed at least 49 others.
The 84-year-old cleric had been considered a scholarly figure with standing throughout the Arab world, but became controversial when he threw his weight behind President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s two-year-old revolt.
In a speech he branded Assad’s opponents as “scum” and he also called in his last two sermons for a general conscription in the army to fight the rebels.
Syrian officials buried Buti on grounds beside the tomb of the Saladin, heralded as a heroic warrior in Islam for pushing back the Crusaders in the 12th century. The Ummayyad Mosque is Islam’s third most important landmark.
The decision grated with the mostly Sunni Muslim opposition that is fighting Assad, who is from the minority Alawite sect that has dominated Syrian politics for more than four decades.
The funeral, held with tight state security that blocked roads and caused traffic jams across Damascus, highlights regional political divisions created by Syria’s two-year conflict. The uprising, which began as peaceful protests, has devolved into a brutal civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people.
Opposition activists saw Buti, a Sunni Muslim, as a screen for Assad’s government to claim legitimacy among Sunnis. Sunni militant groups have risen to the fore of the rebel movement over the past year, which Assad has used to justify his long-held accusations that the revolt is a “terrorist” plot.
The Umayed Mosque is home to a rich tradition of Islamic scholarship, and has been symbol of the moderate “Middle Way” approach to Islam. The secular Assad government has championed itself since the uprising as protector of that “Middle Way”.
Opposition activists voiced anger on social media at the decision to bury Buti beside Saladin’s tomb.
“Burying Buti next to Saladin is a deliberate insult,” activist Waleed al-Akrat wrote on his Twitter page.
“Oh, Saladin. Forgive us. We are sorry,” wrote another activist, who goes by the alias Syria Mubasher.
Video from the funeral, broadcast live on state television, showed crowds of men carrying his white-draped casket into the mosque.
Buti was assassinated on Thursday evening while delivering his weekly religious lecture at a neighborhood mosque in central Damascus, in an attack state media labeled a “terrorist suicide bombing”.
Rebel groups denied responsibility for the bombing, arguing they would never attack a mosque.
Before Buti, the current head of the opposition’s National Syrian Coalition, Moaz Alkhatib, was the Imam of Ummayed Mosque. Alkhatib was toppled from that post and imprisoned in 2011 when he voiced support for the protests, and later was exiled.
Alkhatib said in a statement on his Facebook page that only the regime could have been behind Buti’s death, but also stressed the importance that places of worship and clerics not be attacked despite political differences with the opposition.
“The killing of Doctor al-Buti is a crime in every sense of the word,” he wrote. “No matter the differences that clerics in Syria may have in their view of the situation, this does not allow for the merciless killing of Muslims or the defilement of mosques.”
At the funeral, the government-appointed Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmed Hassoun, gave an emotional eulogy. Earlier this month he took the unusual step of issuing a fatwa, or religious edict, calling for Syrians to join Assad’s forces as a “sacred duty”. Hassoun’s son was killed by rebels in late 2011.
“Oh God, disperse and displace them, come down on them with your wrath,” he wailed. “Oh God, they (the rebels) have displaced us and killed our scholars.”
(This article was reported by a journalist in Damascus whose name is withheld for security reasons)
Writing by Erika Solomon