Tens of thousands attend funeral of Lebanon ayatollah

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Tens of thousands of mourners in southern Beirut bid a final farewell on Tuesday to Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a Shiite cleric revered as a modern face of Islam and listed as a "terrorist" by the United States.

Lebanon held an official day of mourning for the grand ayatollah, who died in hospital on Sunday at the age of 75 of internal bleeding.

Waving black flags and chanting their loyalty to the imam Hussein -- the founder of Shiite Islam -- Fadlallah's followers and admirers accompanied his casket from his home to the Hassanein mosque where he was buried.

A weeping Zahra Omeish, 65, braved the heat and crowd to pay respect to the spiritual leader of Lebanon's Shiite community.

"He was our father, our brother, our friend," she said, leaning on a walking cane and trying to keep the pace with the crowd as it inched its way behind Fadlallah's casket, amid tight security.

"I would see him every Friday at prayer and he would sometimes come and sit with us afterwards," she told AFP in the Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik.

"The father of all orphans, the father of the poor, is gone," she said.

Condolences poured in from across the region, including from Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

British Ambassador Frances Guy also paid tribute to Fadlallah, whose funeral service was not open to the public or the media.

"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," Guy wrote on her blog.

"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."

Revered by Shiite Muslims in Lebanon and the region, including Iraq where he was born, Fadlallah was a "marjaa" -- a rank awarded to clerics qualified to issue religious edicts, or fatwas -- who was known for his modern and moderate social views.

His fatwas banned female circumcision as well as the "honour killing" of women by male relatives.

Fadlallah, a complex and charismatic figure who supported suicide attacks on Israel yet denounced the attacks of September 11, 2001, rose in the ranks of Lebanon's Shiite community decades ago.

He was considered the spiritual guide of Hezbollah when it was founded in 1982 with the support of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard.

Fadlallah gained political leverage during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, but his ties to Hezbollah strained as the war progressed and he distanced himself from the movement's ideological ties to Iran.

He also held particular sway with the Dawa Party of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that he helped found in 1957.

Fadlallah survived multiple assassination attempts, including a bombing on March 8, 1985 in Beirut which killed some 80 people.

In the 1980s, the US media alleged Fadlallah was behind the taking of American hostages by Iranian-backed radical Islamic groups. Other reports suggested he was a mediator, but his actual role remained elusive.

The grand ayatollah frequently blasted US policies in the Middle East, especially the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and Washington's ties with Israel, although he condemned the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

Fadlallah also remained an advocate of suicide attacks as a means of fighting Israel and last year issued a fatwa forbidding the normalisation of ties with the Jewish state.

Along with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, Fadlallah's name appears on a US list of "Specially Designated Terrorists."

© 2010 AFP

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