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Thousands Attend Funeral Of Lebanese Shi'ite Cleric Dubbed 'Godfather' Of Hizballah

Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah in late 2005

Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah in late 2005

Mourners turned out in their tens of thousands in Beirut today for the funeral of a leading Lebanese Shi'ite cleric blacklisted as a "terrorist" by the United States.

Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, one of the highest authorities in Shi'ite Islam -- who died on July 4, aged 75, after a long illness -- was a fierce critic of U.S. policy and widely considered to be a spiritual mentor to Hizballah.

Mourners swarmed around his coffin, wrapped in black cloth with gold Koranic inscriptions and topped with a black turban, after it was carried out of his house in Beirut's southern suburb of Haret Hreik. Many of the black-clad mourners carried his portrait as they marched.

Some had to be helped by paramedics after being overcome by emotion or fainting from the intense heat.

''This is a painful loss, the loss of the Sayyed [Fadlallah]. The Sayyed was a father figure for all of us, and he was an authority, there was no one like him. He had all the good qualities of a human being,'' one mourner, Kassem, told Reuters as he choked back tears.

Black banners and pictures of the white-bearded cleric were also hung outside mosques and his charitable institutions in Shi'ite areas of southern Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley in the east.

Schools, universities, and state institutions throughout the country were closed to mark the funeral after the Lebanese government declared today a day of mourning. Hizballah has declared three days of mourning.

Such was Fadlallah's standing in the Shi'ite world that senior clerical figures came from as far afield as Iran, Iraq, and Syria to pay their respects. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki -- whose Al-Dawah Party Fadlallah helped to found in the 1950s -- both sent personal representatives to the funeral.

''The loss of Sayyed Fadlallah represents the loss of a great symbol of intellect and dialogue for the Islamic nation. He was a symbol of love among people for all people,'' said one cleric, Sheikh Adham al-Khatib, who came from Damascus to attend.

Shi'ite Leader

Known for his staunch anti-American views, Fadlallah was described by Western media in the 1980s as a spiritual leader of the Lebanese militant organization, Hizballah -- a claim both he and the group have since denied.

He supported the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, but distanced himself from the key principle advocating Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a supreme, undisputed spiritual leader for the world's Shi'a.

Born in Iraq in 1935, Fadlallah -- the author of more than 40 books and treatises -- spent his formative years in the Iraqi Shi'ite shrine city of Najaf before moving to Lebanon at the age of 30.

He subsequently urged Lebanon's Shi'a, who today make up a third of the country's population of 4 million, to fight for their rights.

During Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, he was linked to Iranian-backed Shi'ite militants who kidnapped Americans and other Westerners, and bombed the U.S. Embassy and Marine base in Lebanon, killing more than 260 Americans.

Fadlallah repeatedly denied those links, but argued that such acts were justified when the door to dialogue was closed.

He used many of his Friday Prayer sermons to denounce U.S. policies in the Middle East, particularly its alliance with Israel.

But he was also known in Shi'ite religious circles for moderate social views, especially on women. He issued several notable fatwas, or religious opinions, including against female circumcision and "honor" killings.

He also ruled that women had the right to retaliate if beaten by their husbands and that abortion was permitted in cases where a woman's life was at risk.

compiled from agency reports