Saudi Arabia’s highest religious figure has praised a leading Sunni Muslim scholar for his condemnation of Hezbollah following its intervention in Syria.
Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh’s words yesterday add to the growing criticism of Hezbollah by Sunni authorities, underlining the sectarian aspect of Syria’s civil war where mostly Sunni rebels are fighting president Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The Shiite Hezbollah, once revered by fellow Arabs as a bulwark against Israel, has lost support because of its military support for Assad, including helping his forces retake the strategic border town of Qusair from rebels on Wednesday.
Influential Qatar-based Sunni cleric Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi last week called for jihad [holy war] against Assad and called Iranian-backed Hezbollah – which means party of God – “the party of Satan”.
He said he had been wrong to have praised Hezbollah in the past when he had sought to bring Sunnis and Shiites closer together.
Saudi Arabia’s al-Sheikh, the highest religious authority in the birthplace of Islam, yesterday said Sheikh Qaradawi’s stance was in line with Sunni orthodoxy.
“Part of his statement was his support and reference to the stance of some of the [Saudi] kingdom’s great scholars, which has been clear towards this hateful sectarian party since its establishment,” he said.
He called on scholars and politicians to act to stop Hezbollah’s “aggression”.
Last week, Bahrain’s foreign minister called Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, a “terrorist”.
Nasrallah became a hero in the Arab world after his forces helped push Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000 and confronted the Jewish state in a short war in 2006.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri also tapped into the deepening Sunni-Shiite rift stemming from the conflict, calling on Sunnis everywhere to devote their lives, money and expertise to the overthrow the regime, set up Islamic rule in Syria and prevent a US-allied government from taking over after Assad.
In a 22-minute speech posted on jihadi internet forums, Al- Zawahri also urged Sunnis to “rise above their differences” and fight expanding Shiite influence in Syria.
Meanwhile, Austria announced it is withdrawing its 377 UN peacekeepers from the Golan Heights after Syrian rebels briefly overran a crossing point near the border with Israel yesterday, a development that has deepened concerns the civil war is spreading to neighbouring countries.
Austrian chancellor Werner Fayman and foreign minister Michael Spindelegger said the fighting over the border position in the Golan, a demilitarised area in the plateau captured by Israel from Syria in 1967, made it necessary to withdraw their troops.
“The development … has shown that further waiting can no longer be justified,” a joint statement said.
The Israeli foreign ministry said it regretted the decision and hoped that it would not lead to “further escalation in the region”.
Austria has contributed peacekeepers since the start of the Golan mission in 1974 to separate Israeli and Syrian forces, and its soldiers make up the largest contingent in the 900-strong force, which also includes peacekeepers from the Philippines and India.
Croatia withdrew its contingent in March amid fears they would be targeted after it became apparent Croatian-made weapons were being bought for the rebels by Saudi Arabia.