BEIRUT — Both sides in the Syrian conflict on Friday denounced the killing of an esteemed Sunni Muslim cleric and prominent supporter of President Bashar Assad in what authorities called a suicide bombing that left scores dead at a Damascus mosque.
Many viewed the assassination on Thursday of Sheik Muhammad Bouti, a prominent scholar who had a global reputation in Muslim circles, as an especially callous and barbarous act, even in the context of a two-year conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians. Bouti was well-respected throughout the Muslim world and was regarded primarily as a religious authority, not a political figure.
Bouti, 84, was an ardent backer of Assad, whose government is the target of an armed rebellion led largely by Sunni Muslim fighters, including many Islamists.
The government blamed “terrorists,” its usual label for armed rebels, for the killing, while the opposition blamed the government. The pattern of mutual blame for atrocities has become well-established in Syria.
No group has taken responsibility for the attack.
Syria's official government news service said Bouti was giving a religious lesson at the Imam Mosque when a suicide bomber blew himself up, killing the cleric and 41 other people, including Bouti’s grandson, and injuring 84. Bouti gave regular public lectures at the mosque.
“Look, despite his views, I believe the man had integrity, and frankly I’m saddened by what happened,” said Rihab, an elderly Damascus woman who is anti-Assad. She and others asked to be identified by their first names only for security reasons.
Others interviewed in the capital repeated similar sentiments.
“I really hated it how he peddled the regime’s views, and I could no longer even stand to hear his sermons,” said Yahya, a middle-aged man in Damascus. “But now that this has happened, all I can say is, ‘May God have mercy on his soul.’ What more can I say?”
The incident was widely called the most dramatic attack to date on a house of worship in the Syrian conflict, though the opposition has accused the government of shelling and bombarding numerous mosques. Sunni rebels have been accused of ransacking Christian churches and Shiite Muslim sites.
Opposition leaders denounced the killing and hinted that Bouti was targeted by the government because he was about to shift allegiance from the Assad regime. However, Bouti had given no public indication of such a change in attitude. His most recent sermons had been notably loyalist to Assad.
“We almost never agreed with him on any political opinion, and we saw that his siding with the regime was an incorrect interpretation, but we view his killing to be a crime that opens the doors of evil,” Moaz Khatib, head of a major U.S.-backed opposition coalition, said in a statement. “We believe that the regime assassinated him for fear of a courageous position from him.”
State television showed footage of the aftermath of the attack. Bodies lay scattered about the mosque’s blood-soaked carpets.
The government denounced the killers as cowards and sinners. Bouti’s teachings “will remain as a torch for the honest souls,” the official news service said.
Syrian television aired what was called Bouti’s “farewell sermon,” delivered last Friday at Damascus’ historic Umayyad Mosque, which has a scholarly tradition dating back more than 1,000 years. Bouti regularly delivered Friday sermons at the venerable mosque.
[Updated 11:30 a.m. March 22: Assad issued a statement of condolence Friday, vowing to eliminate the “extremist” elements who killed the cleric, the official news service reported. The goal of the assassination, Assad declared, was to silence “the voice of Islam and the light of faith.”
A period of public mourning was set for Saturday.
Condolences poured in from various Syrian allies, including Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group and political party.
Meanwhile, the official media reported that the death toll in Thursday's mosque blast had climbed to 49.]
Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Beirut and special correspondent Bulos from Amman, Jordan. A special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.