(CNSNews.com) – A Washington-based think tank late Monday cancelled an event scheduled for Thursday after sparking protests for inviting Syria’s grand mufti, a state-appointed ally of President Bashar Assad, who has been quoted as supporting suicide bombing.
At a time when the Obama administration is already being questioned for allowing a member of a designated Egyptian foreign terrorist organization (FTO) to visit Washington, various expatriate Syrian groups and others protested the news that Syrian mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun was also heading for the nation’s capital.
The event to which he had been invited, a forum on “Coexistence and Dialogue in Syria,” was being sponsored by the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP).
In a speech last October, Hassoun warned Western countries against intervening in the conflict in Syria.
“They know very well, that the moment a shell hits Syria, then every son and daughter of Lebanon and Syria will become suicide bombers on the lands of Europe and Palestine,” reads a translation of his speech, available on You Tube. “I say it to all Europe, I say it to the United States: we’ll prepare suicide bombers who are on your land now. If you bomb Syria or Lebanon, then from now on, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and who starts it is to be blamed.”
In a brief notice sent to subscribers Monday FMEP said the forum had been cancelled “[d]ue to unforeseen circumstances.”
Attempts to reach FMEP were unsuccessful, but the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said late Monday it had received an email from FMEP president Philip Wilcox, saying, “We have canceled the Thursday program because the Mufti’s You Tube comments, of which [we] were not informed, were entirely incompatible with the theme we were led to believe he would project, ‘Coexistence and Dialogue.’”
FMEP in a non-profit organization that claims to work for “a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that brings peace and security to both peoples.”
Others who were to have participated in the now-canceled event were Syrian Greek Orthodox Bishop Luka el-Khoury and Syrian American Forum Chairman Nasser Ani.
Among those protesting the invitation to Hassoun was United For a Free Syria chairman Yahya Basha, who called the mufti “a staunch Assad loyalist who has consistently and abashedly aligned himself with the horrific actions of the Assad regime.”
“We are concerned that Hassoun, upon entering the U.S., would perpetuate regime propaganda and continue his threats against Syrians and all those opposed to the Assad regime.” said Syrian Expatriates Organization chairman Iyad Azrak.
Azrak also disapproved of the invitation to the bishop, el-Khoury, saying he was “regularly quoted by Syrian state news outlets discussing conspiracies to unseat Assad.”
Hassoun is not the first Syrian mufti to express controversial views. In the early stages of the Iraq war in 2003 his predecessor, Ahmed Kaftaro, issued a statement calling on Muslims “to use all means possible to thwart the aggression, including martyr operations against the belligerent invaders.”
CAIR said it had written to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier Monday urging her to deny Hassoun a visa.
At a press briefing on Monday afternoon, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to comment on visa matters, citing “confidentiality under U.S. law.”
She said the department was aware that Hassoun and several other clerical figures had been invited to an event in D.C.
Asked whether any administration officials planned to meet with the mufti, Nuland replied, “Again, what we have at this point is an invitation. I don’t have anything for you on anything further.”
Questions about Egyptian terror group member
On Sunday, U.S. House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) asked the Obama administration to explain why Hani Nour Eldin, a lawmaker and member of the Egyptian jihadist group Gama’a Islamiya, had been allowed to enter the U.S. last week and participate in meetings at the White House and State Department.
Gama’a Islamiya has been designated an FTO under U.S. law since 1997. The group’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Umar Abd al-Rahman, is serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
“I am aware that there may be legitimate diplomatic reasons to grant a member of a designated foreign terrorist organization a visa to visit the United States, such as for example in furtherance of peace negotiations,” King wrote in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
“However, the nature of Eldin’s visit suggests an absence of full vetting rather than a policy choice, or perhaps a break-down in the screening missions of and coordination among our federal agencies.”
On Friday, Nuland said the State Department would be “looking into the circumstances of this particular case,” but at Monday’s press briefing she had little to say on the matter.
“As we promised, we did look into it,” she told reporters. “Unfortunately, you’re not going to be happy with me when I tell you that we are not going to get into the details of confidential visa issuance. He and the rest of that delegation who were here last week have all now returned to Egypt.”
Nuland added, “we have an interest in engaging a broad cross-section of Egyptians who are seeking to peacefully shape Egypt’s future.”
She was pressed repeatedly on whether the department considered the issuing of a visa to a member of an FTO to have been a mistake, but declined to say.