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Emboldened by uprising, Syrian clerics speak out

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Inside an old Damascus mosque, Sheikh Sariya Al Rifai departs from state-sanctioned sermons to warn President Bashar Al Assad that the whole country will rise up against him if he does not halt a bloody clampdown against protesters.

“Beware ... all of Syria will erupt if you don’t stop. I hold the leadership responsible for every drop of spilled blood,” Sheikh Rifai said in a sermon marking dawn prayers on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, just as tanks rolled into the Sunni Muslim bastion of Hama.

“I never imagined that the leadership of this country would give such a gift to its people and country ... blood spilling into the streets of Hama and other provinces.”

Sheikh Rifai’s comments earlier this month inside the Zaid Bin Thabet mosque were seen on an Internet video and confirmed to Reuters by worshippers who attended the prayer service.

A pillar of a conservative religious establishment linked to the state, Sheikh Rifai comes from a long line of Koran scholars who have taught generations of devout followers and refrained from challenging the iron rule of the Assad family.

But as the civilian death toll from a crackdown on five months of protests rose past 1,700, Sheikh Rifai joined 19 leading clerics to sign a rare petition, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, blaming President Assad for wreaking carnage on the eve of Ramadan, “the month of mercy and compassion.”

The onset of the holy month on Aug. 1 coincided with the start of the bloodiest week in the uprising, helping drive some clerics to break their silence, clerics and analysts say.

Their new boldness could pile more pressure on Assad and give extra momentum to protests against Assad’s minority Alawite rule over the mainly Sunni Muslim country.

Clerics detained

In an effort to preempt dissent, security forces in Ramadan stepped up detentions of clerics known for attracting large crowds by their fiery anti-government sermons. Others have gone into hiding, activists said.

In Deraa, where the uprising erupted in March, Sheikh Ahmad Sayasneh remains under house arrest in a residential compound close to the city’s security headquarters after criticizing authorities early on, residents say.

“In Ramadan, sheikhs who have spoken against the regime are being rounded up and arrested because they are influencing people and whip up sentiment to join protests,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The dissenting preachers contrast with a majority of Sunni Muslim clerics dependent on the state for their livelihood who – although they may harbor misgivings about President Assad’s rule – deliver sermons that shower support on his ruling family.

Pillars of the establishment, symbolized by prominent Islamist scholar Sheikh Said Ramadan Al Bouti and the Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Al Hassoun, remain solidly behind President Assad and have implored Syrians on state media to stay off the streets.

From the pulpit of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, one of Islam’s holiest sites, Sheikh Bouti has equated those calling for the downfall of the regime with “those seeking the demise of Islam.”

“They are scum,” he added on several occasions.

Witnesses say the numbers of worshippers at the historic and once-overcrowded mosque have dwindled, as its clerics are seen as mouthpieces for Assad, while other places of worship have turned into magnets for protesters.

Sheikh Muaz al-Khatib, banned for the last 15 years from preaching after he was removed from his post as Imam of the Umayyad mosque, criticised pro-Assad clerics for not condemning the intensifying military assaults on protesters.

“The big symbols of the religious establishment should be the umbrella that brings together the state and people to prevent bloodshed,” Khatib, who was jailed for a month during the uprising, told Reuters from Damascus.

Khatib is one of a few prominent anti-Assad clerics who remained in Syria, enduring decades of repression. Many others fled after the Baath Party’s brutal repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, culminating in the 1982 crushing of an armed Islamist uprising in Hama in which many thousands were killed.

FANNING RELIGIOUS PASSIONS

President Assad’s assault on Hama at the start of Ramadan showed disregard for majority Sunni sentiment, said Andrew J. Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Tabler described the assault as “a bizarre calculation for a minority Alawite dominated-regime that carried out a massacre in the same city in 1982.”

Sunni disquiet toward Syria’s Alawites, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, has built up in the last few months as security forces shoot at funerals in and around mosques and the army encircle leading mosques ahead of Friday, witnesses and human rights campaigners say.

In Hama, damage to at least a dozen mosques not only has inflamed passions among its religiously conservative majority Sunni residents but revived memories of a time when the city’s centre and symbols of Islamic heritage were razed.

“They want to provoke a Sunni backlash to plunge Syria into sectarian warfare,” said Sheikh Ahmad al-Alawani, who preached at the Muaz Ibn Jabal mosque in Hama, one of the mosques that had shell holes from the Ramadan assault.

In the eastern city of Deir Al Zor, security forces scribbled graffiti of “No God but Bashar” instead of the “No God but Allah” on several mosques in the Juwra neighborhood.

In a country where political gatherings are banned, mosques remain a focus of the protests. Authorities have also shown on state television alleged confessions of detainees who have talked about how mosques have been used as centers to store weapons for armed groups they say are instigating the uprising.

“We are not afraid. Down with tyrants,” Internet video footage showed hundreds of worshippers chanting during Ramadan night prayers at the Rifai mosque in the Kfar Souseh neighborhood of Damascus.

Sheikh Majd Ahmad Maki, a prominent cleric who fled his hometown of Aleppo in 1980, and a main figure among Syria’s Religious Scholars Association that brings together over 150 leading Islamic scholars in exile, said that Assad cannot keep relying on establishment clerics to justify the killings.

“The regime with its killings has embarrassed even those clerics closest to him. I am not finding now any cleric with a turban who openly supports the killings perpetrated by Assad,” Sheikh Maki said from Saudi Arabia.