UK envoy's praise for Lebanon cleric draws Israel anger

Image caption,
Frances Guy has extensive experience in the Middle East

Israel has criticised Britain's ambassador to Lebanon for eulogising a recently deceased Lebanese cleric said to have inspired Hezbollah.

Frances Guy wrote on her personal blog that Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah was a "decent man" who rated among the people she most admired.

An Israeli spokesman said Ayatollah Fadlallah was "unworthy of praise".

The UK foreign office says it has taken down the blog after "mature consideration".

It said the comments reflected Ms Guy's personal opinion, not official UK policy.

Ayatollah Fadlallah, Lebanon's top Shia Muslim cleric, died on Sunday at the age of 74. Thousands of people attended his funeral in Beirut and tributes poured in from all over the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Two days ago, CNN sacked a veteran Middle East editor who wrote on Twitter that she "respected" the late cleric, saying that her credibility had been compromised.

Controversial figure

Ayatollah Fadlallah 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.

Ms Guy, who has been ambassador since 2006, wrote on her blog that Ayatollah Fadlallah was the politician in Lebanon she most enjoyed meeting.

"The world needs more men like him willing to reach out across faiths, acknowledging the reality of the modern world and daring to confront old constraints," she wrote.

Israel's foreign ministry denounced the comments.

"We believe that the spiritual leader of [Hezbollah] is unworthy of any praise or eulogising," a spokesman told the Israeli newspaper, Yediot Ahronot.

"If Hezbollah was firing missiles at London and Glasgow, would this leader still be called 'decent'?" he added.

Ayatollah Fadlallah was a controversial figure.

He was revered as one of Shia Islam's highest religious authorities and won support from many Muslims for his anti-American stance and his support for the Islamic revolution in Iran.

He advocated suicide attacks as a means of fighting Israel, and has been linked to the 1983 suicide bombings that killed more 300 American troops at the US marine barracks in Beirut.

But he condemned the 9/11 terror attacks and had relatively progressive views on the role of women in society.

'Personal view'

Hezbollah's military wing is proscribed in the UK as a terrorist organisation.

But Ms Guy, who has met with Hezbollah officials on several occasions, wrote that Ayatollah Fadlallah's passing left Lebanon "a lesser place".

"When you visited him you could be sure of a real debate, a respectful argument and you knew you would leave his presence feeling a better person," she wrote.

"That for me is the real effect of a true man of religion; leaving an impact on everyone he meets, no matter what their faith."

The British foreign office said it had removed the blog post as it did not fully reflect the British government's policy.

"The ambassador expressed a personal view on Sheik Sayyed Fadlallah, describing the man as she knew him," a spokesman told the BBC.

"While we welcomed his progressive views on women's rights and interfaith dialogue, we also had profound disagreements - especially over his statements advocating attacks on Israel," he added.

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