Envoy to Lebanon rapped for praising cleric

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The Independent Online

The Foreign Office yesterday disavowed – and removed from its website – a blog by Britain's ambassador to Lebanon praising the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a fierce critic of US and Israeli policy who was sometimes described as Hizbollah's spritual "mentor".

The post by Frances Guy, which described the Lebanese cleric, who died on Sunday, as a "decent man", praised his spirituality and liberal attitudes to women's rights and said the "world needs more like him" drew sharp reactions in Israel. A Whitehall offical acknowledged that there had been "discussions" with the Israeli government over the blog, which was removed after "mature consideration".

The news broadcaster CNN has sacked an experienced Middle East editor, Octavia Nasr, who tweeted a message regretting the death of the religious leader. Ms Nasr had more than 20 years' experience in the area.

Ms Guy wrote: "The world needs more men like him willing to reach out across faiths, acknowledging the reality of the modern world and daring to confront old constraints." Saying that he was the politician in Lebanon she enjoyed meeting the most she added: "When you visited him you could be sure of a real debate, a respectful argument and you knew you would leave his presence feeling a better person. That for me is the real effect of a true man of religion; leaving an impact on everyone he meets, no matter what their faith."

The Foreign Office said: "The ambassador expressed a personal view on Sheikh Sayyed Fadlallah, describing the man as she knew him. This did not fully reflect HMG policy and the blog has been taken down. While we welcomed his progressive views on women's rights and interfaith dialogue, we also had profound disagreements, especially over his statements advocating attacks on Israel." It is not expected that further action will be taken against Ms Guy.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman was earlier quoted by Yedhiot Ahronot newspaper as accusing the late ayatollah of having been behind suicide bombings. "We believe that the spiritual leader of [Hizbollah] is unworthy of any praise or eulogising." Both Hizbollah and the late ayatollah rejected the description of him as a spiritual leader of the movement. He supported the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, and was a consistent critic of Israel but he condemned the 9/11 attacks in the US.

Britain has proscribed Hizbollah's military wing as a terrorist organisation but still has contacts with Hizbollah MPs and other officials. The UK was represented at the funeral of Ayatollah Fadlallah by a second secretary at the embassy The FCO said that Ms Guy was out of the country at the time. France and Italy sent their ambassadors.