Israel briefly detains, then releases chief Muslim cleric

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

JERUSALEM -- Jerusalem's chief Muslim cleric was questioned by Israeli police Tuesday about a newspaper interview in which he was quoted as endorsing suicide bombings.

Ikrima Sabri, 63, was detained at his home and held for three hours at a police compound in Jerusalem before being released without charge.

In an interview afterward, Sabri said he was misquoted.

"That newspaper published words that I never said. From the beginning of the uprising, I have been interviewed by more than 1,000 journalists ... and most of them asked about attacks in Israel. My response was that I had no position toward that."

However, Sabri has often made comments that have outraged Israelis and prompted police to detained him. Incitement to violence is a criminal offense in Israel.

As mufti of Jerusalem, Sabri is influential, often preaching to thousands at the Al Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam's most important religious sites.

Police questioned Sabri about a June 1 interview in the Dubai-based newspaper Al Bayan. The Arabic newspaper quoted him as saying he "did not see any religious prohibition" against suicide bombings.

"On the contrary, it is self-defense and one of the successful types of resistance," he was quoted as saying.

Omar al-Omar, head of Al-Bayan's international section, said the paper accurately quoted Sabri, ascribing Sabri's denial to Israeli pressure.

"What he said is expected, because he was arrested and forced to say that so he can be freed," al-Omar said.

There is no consensus in the Islamic world about whether the religion sanctions suicide bombings. While some prominent clerics have endorsed them, others have rejected such tactics.

Sabri's views are generally in line with the Palestinian Authority, which condemns suicide bombings in Israel, but is vague about attacks on Israeli civilians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel argues that the Palestinian leadership bears ultimate responsibility for the attacks and has not made a serious effort to prevent them.

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