A leading Syrian cleric turned opposition activist says his country needs his message of sectarian unity more than ever as the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad turns bloodier.
“I want the Syrian people to remain as one hand,” Sheikh Mouaz Alkhatib said in Cairo, where he took refuge three weeks ago after repeated detentions by secret police in the past year.
A former Sunni Muslim imam of the ancient Umayyad mosque in Damascus, Alkhatib has sought to remind rebellious Syrians that their fight is against Assad and not his minority Alawite sect.
“Alawites are even more oppressed because the state took them and used them, putting them in confrontation with the rest,” Alkhatib told Reuters in his first interview in exile.
Alkhatib promotes co-existence, even as sectarian tensions worsen between majority Sunnis leading the uprising and the Alawites who dominate power after decades of Assad family rule.
Residents in Syria’s relatively calm coastal province of Tartous, part of the Alawite heartland, say about 300,000 people have arrived there to escape the violence of the past 16 months, and most are believed to be Alawites.
Alkhatib’s belief in a diverse and tolerant Syria has won respect among opposition figures and foreign governments, who see him as someone who could play a stabilizing future role.
“He is important in preventing Syria from spiralling into sectarian violence post-Assad,” said one Western official. “As a moderate, he could curb the influence of more radical clerics in a transition.”
Fawaz Tello, a veteran Syrian dissident, said: “He is an enlightened Islamist well linked to clerics across the country and commands their respect. He could rally Syrians to calm the situation once Assad falls and play a crucial, positive role.”
Syria’s sectarian mix includes Sunnis, Christians and Druze, as well as Alawites and Ismailis, both offshoots of Shiite Islam. Like Turkey and Iraq, it also has a Kurdish minority.
Two of Syria’s neighbors, Lebanon and Iraq, have endured civil wars that tore apart their diverse communities.
Alkhatib, 51, belongs to none of the main opposition groups, identifying himself with the “humanitarian opposition” to Assad.
The softly spoken cleric moved into the spotlight early in the uprising, with a speech in the Damascus suburb of Douma advocating peaceful opposition. He was flanked by two of Assad's most prominent Christian and Alawite opponents.
Alkhatib said he left Syria of his own accord to consider how best to ‘preserve my country.” He did not elaborate on the reason for his departure, but opposition sources said secret police would have probably killed him if he had stayed.
His last spell of detention was at a military intelligence facility in Damascus, where he said he had been held in solitary confinement for two weeks under a lamp that prevented him from sleeping. He was moved to a cramped cell with dozens of other inmates after a bombing that destroyed part of the building.
Known for its links to the Umayyad Mosque, Alkhatib’s family is one of the most prominent in Damascus. Though his father was the mosque's imam for 40 years, Alkhatib was banned from holding any religious post in 1995 because of his “long tongue.”
Fighting has rocked Damascus in the past two weeks after months in which the capital seemed unscathed by the uprising.
“The regime is not weak, but its strength is shrinking,” said Alkhatib, arguing that outgunned rebels were now gaining support even among Syrians who had previously supported the government as a guarantor of security.
Alkhatib tried earlier this year to broker a peaceful end to the conflict, an effort that may have led to his most recent detention. He believes a political solution remains possible, but only if Assad and his cohorts agree to leave very soon.
“The decision is in the regime’s hands. It either resolves the situation peacefully and spares Syrian blood, or it carries on. The price will be high, but the people will not stop.”