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Sidon Dar al-Fatwa helm row sees offices closed
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SIDON, Lebanon: Tensions over the leadership change in Sidon’s Dar al-Fatwa intensified Tuesday, after Sheikh Ahmad Nassar and a group of armed men paid local Mufti Salim Sousan an unexpected visit, sparking a chain of events the incumbent described as a ‘takeover.’

Early Tuesday morning, Sousan was surprised to find Sheikh Nassar, Grand Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani’s newly appointed mufti, sitting at his office desk in the southern Dar al-Fatwa.

Nassar was with a delegation led by Sheikh Hisham Khalifah sent by Qabbani, and Sheikh Iyad Abu al-Ardat, an employee of the Islamic Endowment. The armed men present were apparently under Ardat’s command.

In the past year tensions have flared between Qabbani and the Future Movement, which supports Sousan.

Qabbani held elections for the Higher Islamic Council last month but the majority of its members – who are close to the Future Movement – consider elections illegal, following a Shura Council decision to ban them.

The members met last year under deputy head Omar Miskawi and extended the term of the council until the end of 2013, against Qabbani’s will. The grand mufti argues the Shura Council, a state-run body that rules on the legality of various religious and civil decisions, has no authority to ban polls.

Earlier May, Qabbani appointed Sheikh Nassar to replace Sousan, whose term expired May 5. This was despite a previous agreement also this month by members of the Higher Islamic Council, during a meeting under Miskawi, that Sousan should remain in his post until a successor had been elected.

Nassar reportedly told Sousan he had come to implement the grand mufti’s decision for him to assume the helm of the Islamic institution. Sousan did not yield and questioned the validity of the grand mufti’s decision, saying it contradicted that of the Higher Islamic Council.

When Sousan declined to hand over his post to Nassar, Ardat ordered the armed men to take up position in the offices of Dar al-Fatwa and at the entrances of the building, preventing people from entering.

A heated argument ensued between the men and persisted until noon prayers obliged all of them to leave. During this time Sousan made numerous phone calls to state officials, including former prime ministers and members of the Higher Islamic Council, informing them that an “armed takeover” was taking place.

The head of the Internal Security Forces in the south, Brig. Gen. Tarek Abdullah, and the head of the Information Branch in the area, Capt. Fouad Ramadan, soon came to the building, and after arguing with Ardat, decided to deploy more ISF personnel there.

Upon returning from prayers, the security forces stationed outside Dar al-Fatwa prevented Qabbani’s delegation, Ardat and Nassar from entering the building, as per a request by Sousan.

Sousan said he would allow Nassar to enter the Dar al-Fatwa premises alone to continue their discussions, but the latter declined. Nassar instead called Qabbani, who ordered him to return to Beirut, as the mufti’s working day was nearing an end.

The mufti usually finishes work and leaves his office at 2 p.m.

Following the incident, south Lebanon Governor Nicholas Bou Daher held an urgent meeting at his office, according to a statement from his office.

He decided to intensify security patrols around the vicinity of Dar al-Fatwa to ensure the public’s safety and said he hoped the issue would be resolved in a peaceful manner, according to the statement.

“What we did was an attempt to follow through on the decision taken by the grand mufti who commissioned Sheikh Ahmad Nassar to run Dar al-Fatwa in Sidon,” Qabbani’s delegation head Sheikh Khalifah told reporters.

“We spoke with Sheikh Salim, but several parties from the old Islamic council who reject the grand mufti’s decision interfered, and so we left the issue to the residents of Sidon.”

Khalifah referred to Sousan as an “illegal” mufti and said those who disagree with the grand mufti’s appointment of Nassar should refer the case to the judiciary.

Nassar rejected Sousan’s description of the morning’s events as an attempt at a forced takeover.

“On my way here I called Mufti Sousan and I told him I was coming, and he said I was welcome,” he told reporters. The real takeover, he insisted, was being propagated by those who reject the grand mufti’s decision.

“What happened today was a ‘takeover’ by loving people who came to congratulate the new mufti, who by chance were holding arms,” he said.

Nassar said he and Sousan “talked like father and son,” but that “interference by several people” impeded their discussions. “We respect Mufti Sousan as he is also the head of the endowment in Sidon. However, I was commissioned [to take over his post] by the grand mufti, who is the legitimate party that makes such decisions.”

Sousan maintained his characterization of the day’s events as an attempted takeover, telling reporters, “Things cannot be done this way,” after Nassar had left the premises.

“When I arrived at Dar al-Fatwa [this morning] I found 40 people inside the building ... this is illogical,” he said.

Sousan said he was nevertheless willing to cooperate with Nassar, adding he was willing to employ the latter. However, he suggested Qabbani’s commissioned mufti should refer to the judiciary if he opposed the decision made by the Higher Islamic Council that allowed him to maintain his post until elections were held.

“I didn’t hand over my powers because I consider my post legal, and that’s why I will remain in my office,” he said.

Miskawi said the morning’s events had been an “assault to the honorable office of the Dar al-Fatwa.”

“The grand mufti knows full well that he has no right to commission anyone to run Dar al-Fatwa without first calling for elections,” Miskawi said in a statement.

He added that the Higher Islamic Council had decided to implement the plan agreed upon by prime ministers and former prime ministers, allowing incumbent muftis to remain until elections are held to replace them.

“What happened today at the Sidon’s Dar al-Fatwa is shameful and disgraceful ... This offends all of us and we are obliged to protect the institution from it.”

The Future Movement also denounced the incident in a statement released after the bloc’s weekly meeting, saying Nassar’s actions were “against the will of the majority.” The bloc said it considers the incident “a deliberate attempt to divide the Sunni sects to serve the plans of Hezbollah.”

In a statement, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati expressed his regret over the “dangerous approach that some people are using to try and drag the Sunni sect into a dangerous situation, to achieve aims that are no longer discernable to the public and to officials.”

He said Grand Mufti Qabbani’s decision to commission a new mufti to run Sidon’s Dar al-Fatwa could not override the Higher Islamic Council, and suggested he refer his objections to the judiciary.

source By Mohammed Zaatari

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