‘They want to divide us religion-wise’

Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun of Syria speaks during a meeting with Russian lawmakers.

Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun of Syria speaks during a meeting with Russian lawmakers.

Valery Sharifulin / TASS
The protracted Syrian civil war is seeing participation of representatives of various faiths, from all sides of the divide. Some conflicting parties are using religious slogans to mobilize their supporters. Syria’s Grand Mufti, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, speaks about how to stop the bloodshed and why the root of the conflict does not lie only in religious antagonisms.

The Syrian Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun is a strong supporter of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. He has visited Russia several times and has even given a sermon in Chechnya's main mosque,’ Heart of Chechnya’. The online newspaper Gazeta.ru recently spoke to the Mufti (religious teacher), who wields significant authority among Sunni Muslims, about what is happening in Syria and in West Asia in general.

There is a common narrative that the civil war happening in Syria is an interreligious conflict. Is this so?

It is true that in the four years of the war it has always been depicted as an interreligious war. But it is not so. Everyone is running from the places controlled by the Islamic State (IS) or the al-Nusra Front: Christians, Sunnis and Alawites. And they are all running to places where the Syrian army is established. The provinces of Al-Raqqah and Idlib are places where only Sunnis live, yet for some reason the Sunnis are running from the al-Nusra Front, which positions itself as the "protector of the Sunnis."

Syria is a secular state and 70 years ago, we even had a Christian prime minister. We are currently the only country in the Middle East where children in school have only one subject on religion. In the universities Christians and Muslims study together. In order to enter the government it is not necessary to represent one faith or another.

How would you then characterize this conflict?

The war is now being fought between religious terrorism and the secular government. The war in Syria is not an inter-religious war and not a war to topple Assad. It is a war to destroy Syria as the last secular government in the Middle East. All the other Middle Eastern countries became states with a defined religious order a long time ago. This is the case even for Lebanon. It is clearly divided according to religion in several parts: the former president was a Maronite Christian, the speaker of parliament is a Shiite and it is only this balance that helps maintain peace there. In Jordan the king must be a Hashemite. In Saudi Arabia the ruling dynasty is Sunni and must be composed of members of the Saudi family. In Iraq the president must be a Sunni and the prime minister a Shiite. In Turkey the president must only be a Muslim.

Syria remains the only country where the president and the prime minister can be Christians or Shiites or Alawites or Sunnis or even atheists. They want to divide us into several religious quasi-states.

Why then did the war begin and why is opposition to government so strong?

In this sense, what is happening in our country has a non-Syrian nature. It is enough to say that from the first day of the war there were two bases: one in Jordan and another in Turkey. For three years Syria had resisted all these forces rather successfully. Then they provoked the entry of the IS into our country. Now there are 30,000 Uighur Muslims from China and militants from Chechnya, the UK and a series of European countries fighting against us. They are all killing people regardless of the faith that the victims adhere to. By the way, these terrorists have killed more Sunnis during the war than anyone else.

You are an Alawite or a Sunni?

A Sunni. But this has no significance for me in the context of the current situation in my country. Once some Saudi TV personalities called me a "mufti for Syrian Sunnis." I told them that I am not a mufti for Syrian Sunnis but a mufti for all of the Syrian people. Among my parishioners are Muslims, Christians and even those that do not profess a faith in any God. They are all my people. At the very beginning of the conflict the Minister of Defense Dawoud Rajiha, who was an Orthodox Christian, was killed in a terrorist attack. His widow and daughters now come to me and say, "You are our patriarch."

What must be done in your opinion in order to reconcile people of various creeds in the Middle East?

We need to reeducate the youth and constantly work with young people. Furthermore, we need to separate religion and politics. On the one hand we must make sure that the government's secular character does not mean a battle against religion and on the other, we must make sure that religion serves man, not serves to control him. Just as Jesus did not speak of a state only for Christians, Mohammed did not create a state only for Muslims and Moses did not establish a country only for Jews. They created secular governments. Recently President Putin inaugurated a big wonderful mosque. This is good. But trust me, if they had built a big factory for producing medicine and a small mosque, this would have been even better.

I think that if Jesus and Mohammed were to reappear, they would not go to the mosque or to the church. They would go, for example, to the stadiums, which are filled with lots of people and they would hold their prayers and sermons there.

Do you forgive those Syrians who fought for IS or for other Islamist groups but then renounced their activity and surrendered to the government forces?

Every week I dedicate my talks to this and call on them to do this. Hundreds of such Syrians come over to our side regularly and we forgive them. The way to the homeland is open for everyone and no one has any problem with this.

First published in Russian in Gazeta.ru.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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