Thousands grieve for murdered Syrian imam who supported Assad

As with so many of the shadowy deaths in Syria since the uprising began, there will be no independent, credible and thorough investigation into the bombing that killed Mohammed Said Ramadan Al Bouti. Phil Sands reports

The coffin of Sunni cleric Mohammed Said Ramadan Al Bouti is carried through Damascus during his funeral on Saturday. Louai Bechara / AFP
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A controversial and powerful pro-regime Sunni imam was buried in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus yesterday, two days after he and 48 others were killed in a bombing.

At a funeral procession that drew thousands of mourners, Syrian officials paid homage to Mohammed Said Ramadan Al Bouti, declaring a national day of mourning for a man who had been a key public supporter of the president, Bashar Al Assad.

The regime blamed a suicide attacker for the explosion at the Imam mosque on Thursday that killed Al Bouti, 84, his grandson and dozens of worshippers.

But exactly who is behind the murder remains unclear.

As with so many of the shadowy, violent deaths in Syria since the uprising began more than two years ago, there will be no independent, credible and thorough investigation into the bombing.

The resulting vacuum is already proving a fertile space for speculation and conspiracy theories. The regime blames the rebels, the rebels blame the regime; the truth remains elusive.

Armed rebel groups in Damascus deny any role in the killings. Despite his vocal support of the Syrian president, which had dismayed opposition groups, Al Bouti had not previously been targeted, although he took few security precautions and refused to have bodyguards or official government cars to transport him around the capital.

According to Damascus residents, Al Bouti regularly walked down the hill to the Imam mosque from his modest home in the Ruken El Deen neighbourhood of Damascus, accompanied only by his grandson.

Those habits had apparently not changed from before the start of the uprising in 2011, nor had security precautions around his home.

"Everyone knew where Al Bouti was, if we had wanted to kill him it would have been very simple to do it, the Free Syrian Army is strong in Ruken El Deen," said a commander with the FSA in Damascus.

"We certainly didn't kill Al Bouti and if we had wanted to we could have done it much more easily than putting a bomb in a highly secured mosque."

The Imam mosque is next door to the Damascus headquarters of Mr Al Assad's Baath party, a building that was attacked in a car bombing in February. Since that explosion, the area has been subject to tightened security, with roadblocks and guards searching people wanting to enter the zone.

Rebel factions have also insisted they will not attack places of worship.

"The FSA didn't do it and I've heard from Jabhat Al Nusra [an Islamic militant faction] that it wasn't them either, there were meetings with them on the day Al Bouti was killed and they said it definitely wasn't them," said an opposition figure in Damascus.

"No one knows who did it, and it might have been the regime - why not, they're not afraid of killing people if it suits them and they're not worried about shedding blood in a mosque."

Regime claims of a suicide bombing have also been disputed by the opposition, with counter claims that explosives had been planted inside the desk Mr Al Bouti used when in the mosque, and that two other bombs went off inside the mosque.

Also, the killing came just days before Al Bouti apparently planned to travel out of Syria - a detail that, if true, adds to the mystery surrounding his death.

Rumours have begun to circulate that he might even have been planning to flee the country, as have government officials and military officers who have opted to end their association with the Assad regime.

"Two weeks ago Sheikh Al Bouti had requested permission from the security services to travel to Malaysia for an Islamic conference he was going to take part in," said a Syrian businessman who was familiar with Mr Al Bouti's travel arrangements.

All Syrians are required to get permission in advance from the security services before leaving the country, long a routine procedure in Syria's authoritarian police state.

"I do not know if that security clearance was given but it was certainly asked for," the businessman said. "Some people are now saying the regime was afraid about Al Bouti leaving Syria, that they were worried he might go and decide not to come back, not defect so much as just end his public support for Assad."

On the surface that suggestion may not seem to have much credence. Al Bouti was a trenchant ally of the Syrian president and as recently as his last Friday sermon, televised live from the Umayyad mosque, he had, in typically strident fashion, backed the Syrian army, saying troops were involved in a global war started by the West and Israel, and that Syrian soldiers were fighting on behalf of all Muslims.

There is little evidence to suggest Al Bouti had changed his stance, or his apparent belief in the sincerity of Mr Al Assad's pledges to undertake real political reforms.

But the cleric's relationship with the Syrian regime was more complicated than one of simple, unquestioning support. On occasions in the past, Al Bouti had disagreed with both Mr Al Assad and his hardline father and predecessor Hafez.

Born in 1929, Al Bouti rose to become one of Syria's most highly regarded Islamic scholars. Educated in Islamic law at Al Azhar University in Cairo, he was a gifted writer and public speaker and built a reputation as a man of principle.

In 1979 he had incurred the anger of Hafez Al Assad and senior government officials after giving a speech to mark the start of the 15th Islamic Century in which he refused to endorse the elder Assad as Syria's "eternal leader" on the ground that there was such no position in Islamic teachings.

Unlike Syria's current uprising, during the 1980s when Hafez Al Assad fought a bloody campaign against an insurrection by the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Bouti kept his distance from the regime.

By the time Bacel Al Assad, Bashar's elder brother and the man being groomed by their father to succeed him, had been killed in a car crash, Al Bouti had become a close associate of Hafez.

He remained close to Bashar Al Assad yet refused to take up the influential post of Grand Mufti when asked by Bashar to do so in 2005, preferring his job as a scholar at Damascus university.

He was one of the few figures able to publicly criticise Mr Al Assad's policies and did so at the start of the uprising after a government move to sack hundreds of female teachers for wearing the hijab. That decision was quickly revoked by Mr Al Assad.

Widely respected before March 2011, his influence on the street fell away over his support for Mr Al Assad as the uprising continued and the violence proliferated.

Other respected Syrian imams sought to persuade Al Bouti to use his influence to push the Syrian president into making dramatic, quick reforms or, failing that, to stop his pubic endorsement of Mr Al Assad.

Al Bouti refused, and continued his weekly televised sermons, calling protesters "scum" and backing Mr Al Assad's contention that he is facing a nefarious international conspiracy.

Once a bestselling author, with hundreds of thousand of copies of his books sold each year, Al Bouti's works all but disappeared from shop shelves by the end of 2011, and attendance at his Friday sermons dwindled.

Many Syrians began to call him a hypocrite over his support for the uprising in Egypt, which he had written was Islamic, only to condemn peaceful protests as un-Islamic when they broke out in his own country.

His public stature waned - and with it, perhaps, his usefulness to the regime as a heavyweight Sunni clerical supporter - but he commanded a residual respect. Rather than attack him, many opposition activists appeared content to ignore him, confident he had undermined his own credibility and made himself irrelevant.

"Al Bouti's death is a tragedy, even though most of us disagreed with him at the end," said a resident of Damascus, and regular mosque attender. "It came as a surprise to us that he was killed. It seemed as though Al Bouti would just be left alone."