DAMASCUS, March 23 — Syrian dignitaries buried a divisive pro-government cleric at the capital's ancient Ummayyad Mosque on Saturday, choosing a site near the famous Muslim warrior Saladin.
Mohammed al-Buti, the government-appointed imam of the ancient Ummayyed Mosque, died in a Thursday night bomb attack on a neighbourhood mosque that also killed at least 49 others.
The 84-year-old cleric had been considered a scholarly figure with standing throughout the Arab world, but became controversial when he threw his weight behind President Bashar al-Assad in the country's two-year-old revolt.
In a speech he branded Assad's opponents as "scum" and he also called in his last two sermons for a general conscription in the army to fight the rebels.
Syrian officials buried Buti on grounds beside the tomb of the Saladin, heralded as a heroic warrior in Islam for pushing back the Crusaders in the 12th century. The Ummayyad Mosque is Islam's third most important landmark.
The funeral, held with tight state security that blocked roads and caused traffic jams across Damascus, highlights regional political divisions created by Syria's two-year conflict. The uprising, which began as peaceful protests, has devolved into a brutal civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people.
The Umayed Mosque is home to a rich tradition of Islamic scholarship, and has been symbol of the moderate "Middle Way" approach to Islam. The secular Assad government has championed itself since the uprising as protector of that "Middle Way".
Video from the funeral, broadcast live on state television, showed crowds of men carrying his white-draped casket into the mosque.
Buti was assassinated on Thursday evening while delivering his weekly religious lecture at a neighbourhood mosque in central Damascus, in an attack state media labelled a "terrorist suicide bombing".
Moaz Alkhatib the current head of the opposition's National Syrian Coalition, said in a statement on his Facebook page that,
"The killing of Doctor al-Buti is a crime in every sense of the word," he wrote. "No matter the differences that clerics in Syria may have in their view of the situation, this does not allow for the merciless killing of Muslims or the defilement of mosques."
At the funeral, the Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmed Hassoun, gave an emotional eulogy. Earlier this month he took the unusual step of issuing a fatwa, or religious edict, calling for Syrians to join Assad's forces as a "sacred duty". Hassoun's son was killed by rebels in late 2011.
"Oh God, disperse and displace them, come down on them with your wrath," he wailed. "Oh God, they (the rebels) have displaced us and killed our scholars." — Reuters
Syria's Grand Mufti Ahmed Badr al-Din al-Hassoun sits near the coffins of Muslim cleric Mohammed al-Buti and his grandson Ahmad al-Buti.