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SYRIA: Death of popular Sunni cleric stirs unrest in Aleppo

September 6, 2011 | 12:24 pm

Salkini

The funeral of an outspoken Sunni cleric who died under tight security in a hospital Tuesday interrupted the calm that has largely prevailed in the Syrian commercial center of Aleppo throughout the nation's six-month uprising. Plainclothes pro-government security forces attacked mourners, and mourners and activists calling for an end to President Bashar Assad's regime.

Videos posted on the Internet showed at least several hundred people joining the funeral procession, chanting "death but not indignity,'' a slogan of the anti-government protests.

The paid, pro-government militiamen known as "shabiha" and the regular government security forces with them beat and detained mourners when the funeral march reached the cemetery, activists said.

Dr. Ibrahim Salkini, 77, the Sunni mufti of Aleppo and dean of theology at Damascus University, died earlier Tuesday after spending several days in the hospital. According to the Union of Aleppo Coordinators, the Aleppo branch of Syria's activist network, the Local Coordination Committees, the mufti suffered a heart attack after security forces visited him following what some deemed a defiant Friday sermon by the cleric last week.

According to the Union of Aleppo Coordinators, the family of the sheikh was not allowed to visit him in the hospital and his room was under tight security. Suspicions that the death involved foul play spread quickly Tuesday.

"I believe that the government is involved in the death of our sheikh. He had always been so courageous in speaking against the regime and we all found his words so wise. Who else would have killed him?" asked Aniseh, a 45-year-old mother of five in Aleppo, and one of several people interviewed who raised  the allegation.

The Aleppo mufti was known for being critical of the regime's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. Salkini, along with other clergy in Aleppo, issued a statement last month blaming the Syrian authorities responsible for the bloodshed in the country since they were the "more powerful" of the two sides. (Link is in Arabic.) More than 2,200 people have died, according to the United Nations.

Salkini could stir more unrest in Aleppo, where the lives of residents has been largely untouched by current bloodshed. The regime in Damascus has counted on the middle- and upper-class residents of Damascus and Aleppo to be a counterweight to protesters in other restive cities participating in daily demonstrations against the government. 

Tensions over the killing of the sheikh -- a member of Syria's Sunni majority -- and the suspicions involving the shabiha, many of whom are members of Assad's Alawite religious minority, underscored constant worries that the government crackdown could spark sectarian fighting. Many activists and defectors from the nation's  military accuse the government of trying to spur clashes between Syria's religious groups to justify an even more brutal crackdown on the uprising.

In comments posted on the Facebook page of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford rejected the Syrian government's standard characterization of opposition members as armed extremists.

"Peaceful protesters are not 'terrorists,' and after all the evidence accumulated over the past six months, no one except the Syrian government and its supporters believes that the peaceful protesters here are," Ford wrote.

Ford acknowledged that security forces have been killed. The regime estimates around 400 have died.

"But the number of security service members killed is far, far lower than the number of unarmed civilians killed," he said. "No one in the international community accepts the justification from the Syrian government that those security service members' deaths justify the daily killings, beatings, extrajudicial detentions, torture and harassment of unarmed civilian protesters."

Syria's escalating military offensives against largely unarmed civilians prompted international condemnation from Western and Arab governments last month, and economic sanctions by the United States and European Union. The international measures show no sign so far of slowing the killings.

On Tuesday, security forces opened fire from a checkpoint near the restive central city of Homs, killing two people, including a 15-year-old boy, activists said. Activists also reported the killings Monday of five people, all said by activists to be Alawites, in a further trigger to sectarian tensions.

-- Roula Hajjar, Ellen Knickmeyer and a special correspondent in Beirut

Photo: Funeral of Sheikh Salkini, mufti of Aleppo. Credit: YouTube

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