Syrian opposition appoints new Islamic mufti after Assad regime abolishes post
An opposition Syrian Islamic body has elected a senior Muslim cleric to serve as "Mufti of the Republic" after the regime of President Bashar al-Assad announced earlier this week that it had abolished the post.
The Syrian Islamic Council said late on Saturday that 77-year-old Sheikh Osama Al-Rifaie will serve as the new Mufti.
In Syria, the Mufti of the Republic issues religious decrees and rulings and determines when religious occasions, such as the start and end of Ramadan, occur. Similar positions exist in other Arab and Muslim countries.
Until the Assad regime abolished the post, Ahmed Badreddin Hassoun served as the Mufti of the Republic. During the Syrian conflict, he became notorious for his pro-regime pronouncements, once threatening to send suicide bombers to Europe, and for signing the death warrants of thousands of detainees who were executed at Saydnaya Prison.
Muti al-Batin, a spokesman for the Syrian Islamic Council, which is based in Istanbul and is made up of clerics opposed to the regime, said that the council "in its position as the authority representing [Islamic] knowledge and scholars unanimously elected Sheikh Osama Abdul Karim Al-Rifaie as the General Mufti of the Syrian Arab Republic".
He called on Syrians to "support their unified religious authority", adding that Al-Rifai would deliver a "comprehensive message" in the coming days.
"The position of the mufti has a prestigious position in the history of Islamic civilisation," Al-Batin added, accusing the regime of weakening the power of the mufti before finally deciding to abolish the position.
Former Mufti Hassoun was a stalwart supporter of the regime but many Syrians saw the abolition of his position as a move against the country's Sunni majority, which prior to 2011 formed roughly 75% of Syria's population.
President Bashar al-Assad, like many key regime figures, is from Syria's Alawi minority and the regime has depended on support from the Alawi community to remain in power.
'Golden opportunity' for Assad's enemies
Over the course of the Syrian conflict, which began with protests against Assad's rule in 2011, the regime has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more, most of them Sunnis. Its opponents have often accused it of attempting to change Syria’s demographic character.
Motaz Al-Khatib, an Islamic researcher, told The New Arab's Arabic-language service that the Syrian Islamic Council's appointment of a new mufti was "a smart move".
"The Council took the opportunity of the vacuum left by the regime and filled it through elections, while the regime used to appoint [the Mufti]," he said.
"By abolishing the position the regime has given a golden opportunity to its enemies," Al-Khatib added, saying that Al-Rifai's election "took place after widespread anger that the position [of Mufti] had been cancelled. That was interpreted as a cancellation of the Sunnis as an official and majority component of Syria".
The regime announced that it was transferring Hassoun's powers to an appointed jurisprudential council composed of clerics from various communities.
The new mufti appointed by the opposition, Osama al-Rifaie, was born in Damascus in 1944. When the Syrian uprising against President Assad broke out in 2011, he openly criticised the regime’s violence against peaceful protests.
He was beaten by security forces and received death threats and had to leave Syria in the same year.