April 23 (Bloomberg) -- Lebanese clerics called for a holy war to defend Sunni co-religionists in Syria from Hezbollah militiamen accused of intervening in that country’s civil war.
Syrian opposition groups have warned that Lebanon-based Hezbollah is becoming more engaged in the two-year-old civil conflict, saying it threatens to spread the bloodletting. The Iranian-backed militant group denies it is fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
The two Lebanese Sunni clerics, Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir and Sheikh Salem al-Rafei, called on supporters to embark upon a holy war, or jihad, to help defend the Al-Qusair area in Homs province, central Syria, against Hezbollah fighters. Battles have been raging for days in the area, which is strategically located near the highway linking Damascus to the coast.
Al-Assir called on “those who see themselves threatened by Hezbollah to form cells made up of five people each to defend themselves,” according to the official National News Agency.
Al-Rafei called for a mobilization of men and arms to help “the dispossessed” in Al-Qusair. “We’re going to do what Hezbollah is doing, but with our Sunni brethren in Syria,” al-Rafei said, according to a statement and video posted on his Facebook page.
The conflict has already inflamed sectarian tensions in Lebanon and sparked clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government this year and last year. The fighting in turn reflects the sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria. Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, whose religion is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Syria’s insurgents are predominantly Sunni.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni, condemned in an e-mailed statement Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria as a “real crime” and at the same time rejected calls for jihad in Syria.
Meanwhile two Syrian Christian clerics, Yohana Ibrahim, Bishop of the Syriac Orthodox church in Aleppo, and Bishop Boulos Yazigi, Bishop of the Greek Orthodox church in Aleppo, have been kidnapped by rebels, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported. Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Ageidi, head of rebels’ military council in Aleppo, told Al-Jazeera television that his men were not involved and were looking for the churchmen. The clerics were subsequently released, Al-Arabiya television reported.
Yesterday, George Sabra, interim chief of the main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, warned that Hezbollah’s role in fighting in Homs amounted to a “declaration of war against the Syrian people,” according to a video posted on the coalition’s Facebook page.
“The Lebanese president and the Lebanese government should realize the danger that it poses to the lives of Syrians and the future relations between the two peoples and countries,” Sabra said.
Sabra urged Lebanese Shiites to “prevent their children from killing Syrians.”
Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel, denies it is backing Assad in the fighting, saying it’s defending Lebanese Shiites living in border communities against rebel assaults. Syrian government forces have attacked suspected rebel supply routes inside Lebanon with artillery and warplanes. Two Grad missiles fell on the outskirts of the Lebanese Shiite town of Hermel, NNA said. It didn’t mention the source of the attack.
The tensions have affected the country’s economy, which is expected to grow at 2 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. A political impasse over the laws governing June’s parliamentary elections and the reappointment of a security chief forced Prime Minister Najib Mikati to resign in March. Tammam Salam, who was charged April 5 with forming a government, has yet to announce the new Cabinet as Lebanon’s main political players bicker over its mandate.
Despite the tensions, Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh said at a press conference there are no indications that confidence in Lebanon’s economy is fading. Salameh said growth may exceed expectations amid “appropriate” political conditions.
In an interview later, Salameh said deposits at Lebanese banks grew at a rate of 7 percent in the first three months. He said Lebanese who have money in Cyprus, where a financial rescue imposed losses on depositors, have left instructions that when the restrictions are lifted they want the funds to return to Beirut.
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