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Mikati, ex-PMs urge grand mufti to convene Sunni council

Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani speaks during a press conference in Dar al-Fatwa in Beirut, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

BEIRUT: Prime Minister Najib Mikati and former prime ministers have given Grand Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani until Saturday to convene a session of the Higher Islamic Council, in order to set a date for electing members of the disputed body.

A statement released following the meeting at the Grand Serail urged Qabbani to call for a session of the council. Mikati and the former premiers warned that if the grand mufti does not heed their call, they would hold an urgent meeting in order to take suitable measures, “given that his eminence will be refraining from doing what the high interest of the sect requires.”

The meeting was attended by Mikati and former prime ministers Fouad Siniora, Omar Karami, and Salim Hoss. Siniora also represented former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in the meeting.

“[The attendees] ask the grand mufti once again to call on the Higher Islamic Council so that it convenes no later than March 16, 2013,” the statement said.

“The meeting’s attendees urge Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani to respond positively to this call. His continuous prevention of allowing the prime minister and former prime ministers from working together to preserve the unity of the sect and its dignity, will result in measures that prevent anyone from denigrating this seat [of the grand mufti],” the statement added.

The statement said that the decision came following Qabbani’s insistence on disrupting the functions of the Higher Islamic Council and his refusal to respond to similar requests, adding that attendees were aware of the detrimental impact of such a “negative stance” on the unity of the Sunni sect.

Sources close to Qabbani refused to comment on the statement released by attendees of the meeting.

Other sources who spoke to The Daily Star said that representatives of Mikati and Qabbani were contacting each other away from the media, in order to resolve the crisis and prevent further divisions among the sect.

The sources said that a solution that would please all sides could be reached within 48 hours.

Qabbani has turned down previous requests by Mikati and the former prime ministers to convene a council session, because he considers that the term of the body expired at the end of 2012. The grand mufti has called for the elections of new council members to take place on April 14. Qabbani heads the Higher Islamic Council, which is the country’s top Sunni administrative body.

The controversy in the council began when 21 members of the council met last December under the body’s deputy head, former Transport Minister Omar Miskawi, and extended the term of the 32-member council for one year. They argue that their move is legal, as it was published in the official gazette. Qabbani argues that the extension is illegal, since he did not approve or chair the session.

The dispute has taken a political dimension because the 21 members who resigned from the council are close to Hariri’s Future Movement. Ties between Qabbani and the Future Movement deteriorated after the grand mufti opposed the toppling of the Mikati government, following the assassination Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan last October.

Mikati and the former prime ministers said it was necessary to elect muftis for districts as part of preparing for electing Higher Islamic Council members. Attendees of the meeting said that they, like all other Muslims, were interested in distancing the seat of the grand mufti from political disputes and personal interests.

“They [the attendees of the prime minister’s meeting] highlight to the grand mufti the need for him to make relentless efforts to preserve the unity [of the sect],” the statement said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 14, 2013, on page 3.

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