Thousands of people have gathered in the downtown of the Syrian capital amid tight security for the funeral of a senior pro-government cleric who was killed in a mosque earlier this week.
Security forces on Saturday sealed off all roads leading to the eighth century Omayyad Mosque in Damascus where the funeral for 84-year-old Sheik Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Bouti was held.
Al-Bouti, his grandson and 48 others were killed on Thursday when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside a mosque where he was giving a religious lesson, state media said.
Mourners carried al-Bouti and his grandson’s coffin on their shoulders on Saturday amid shouts of “God is Great”.
Al-Bouti was Imam of the Omayyad Mosque, a landmark in Damascus.
Syrian state TV said President Bashar al-Assad was being represented at the funeral by one of his cabinet ministers.
On Friday, Assad vowed to “cleanse” his country of “extremists”, whom he accused of being behind the attack.
In a statement issued by the presidency, Assad condemned the attack and mourned Bouti’s death, vowing to eradicate “extremism and ignorance” in Syria.
“I swear to the Syrian people that your blood, and that of your grandson and all the martyrs of the homeland, will not be spilled in vain because we will be faithful to your ideas by destroying their extremism and ignorance until we have cleansed the country,” Assad said in the statement on Friday.
The attack was condemned by the opposition, who raised the possibility that the regime was behind the deadly blast at the Iman Mosque.
The government declared Saturday a day of mourning.
Al-Bouti was the most senior religious figure to be killed in Syria’s conflict.
Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon, said the death of Bouti was a “very big deal”.
“Among the 500 most influencial Muslims in the world, he is ranked 23,” she said.
The preacher had been a vocal supporter of the regime since the early days of Assad’s father and predecessor, the late President Hafez Assad, providing a Sunni cover and legitimacy to their rule.
Sunnis are the majority sect in Syria while Assad is from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
In a speech earlier this month, al-Bouti had said it was “a religious duty to protect the values, the land and the nation” of Syria.
“There is no difference between the army and the rest of the nation,” he said at the time – a clear endorsement of Assad’s forces in their effort to crush the rebels.