Thousands attend Beirut funeral of Ayatollah Fadlallah

Jim Muir on Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah, as his coffin passes through Beirut

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Thousands of people in Beirut have attended the funeral of Lebanon's most eminent Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah.

A day of national mourning was declared and a huge crowd followed the funeral procession in Beirut's southern suburbs.

Tributes poured in from all over the Arab and Islamic worlds.

The seminaries at Najaf in Iraq, where the ayatollah was born and studied, declared three days of mourning.

The militant Shia movement Hezbollah, with which the ayatollah's name was strongly linked, especially in its early days, also declared three days of mourning and called for a massive turnout for the funeral.

Regional tributes


Jim Muir

Hours before the funeral procession was due to arrive, thousands of people were already gathering in scorching sunshine outside the Hasanein mosque in Beirut's southern suburbs.

Mostly clad in black, they stood in lines in the streets and prayed as Ayatollah Fadlallah was laid to rest inside the mosque where he had so often led Friday prayers.

Representatives from Shia communities in the Gulf, Iraq and Iran have all come to pay their respects to a man who on the religious scene was a colossus.

There is a huge sense of loss here among the many who felt he was a champion of the downtrodden.

The Americans may have seen him as some kind of terrorist because of his links with Hezbollah and his support for resistance to the Israeli occupation - as it is seen here - but that is a very different picture from the way that he is seen by most Lebanese and by many people in the Islamic and Arab worlds.

The funeral procession carried the ayatollah's coffin from his home, through the southern suburbs, to the mosque which he favoured, where he was to be laid to rest.

There had been no funeral like it in the southern suburbs, a stronghold for Hezbollah, since that of the former Hezbollah leader Abbas al-Musawi, who was killed by the Israelis in 1992, said the BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut.

Top Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, sent their sympathies and messages of praise.

In the late 1950s, Ayatollah Fadlallah helped found Mr Maliki's Daawa party.

Senior Iranian figures also sent their condolences, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said that Ayatollah Fadlallah had always been a patron and supporter of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon - referring to Hezbollah.

The Lebanese government declared a day of national mourning and said flags would be flown at half mast for three days.

Complex figure

Ayatollah Fadlallah, who held the title "sayyed" to indicate claims of direct lineage with the Prophet Mohammed, died at Bahman hospital in Beirut on 4 July after a long illness. He was 74.

Shia women sit next to pictures of Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah as they attend his funeral in Beirut's southern suburb 6 July 2010.

He had been a supporter of Iran's Islamic revolution and was customarily described as the spiritual leader of the militant movement Hezbollah when it was formed in 1982 - a claim both he and the group denied.

In later years, his links with Hezbollah became strained as he distanced himself from its ideological links to Iran's Islamic republic, and his views became more moderate.

He was a fierce critic of the United States and Israel, advocating suicide attacks as a means of fighting Israel.

He was branded a terrorist by the US, and named on a 1995 blacklist.

But he had also opposed the call to "jihad," or holy war, by Osama bin Laden and the Afghan Taliban, which he considered to be a sect outside Islam.

Away from politics, the white-bearded Fadlallah was also known for relatively liberal views on women.

He issued a fatwa forbidding female circumcision, and was opposed to the "honour killings" of women by their families.

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