The new leader of Syria’s opposition coalition, presented by international media as a moderate Islamic cleric, has called Zionism a “cancerous movement” and praised Saddam Hussein for “terrifying the Jews.”

Mouaz al-Khatib made the “cancerous” reference in an essay published last year titled “The role of international politics in inciting sectarian strife,” in which enumerated the possibility of coexistence between Syria’s Sunni majority and the country’s religious minorities. In it, Khatib includes a chapter titled “Jews in the eyes of the Islamic civilization society.”

Muslim cleric Mouaz al-Khatib, poses for a photo after after he was elected president of the newly formed Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, in Doha, Qatar (photo credit: AP/Osama Faisal)

Muslim cleric Mouaz al-Khatib poses for a photo after after he was elected president of the newly formed Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, in Doha, Qatar (photo credit: AP/Osama Faisal)

“The Islamic civilization clearly draws a clear distinction between Zionism as a cancerous movement and the Jews as the followers of a religion greatly respected in Islam,” Khatib wrote, but then, contradicting that statement, acknowledged “the historic enmity between Muslims and Jews since the early days of the call to Islam.”

Khatib has been described by international media as a moderate religious figure, capable of counterbalancing the growing influence of Islamic extremists within the ranks of the Syrian opposition.

“My brothers, we lived all our lives, Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites and Druse as a one-hearted community, and with us lived our dear brothers who follow Jesus, peace be upon him,” he told a crowd of supporters in a Damascus suburb in April 2011, only one month into the uprising.

But it would seem that Khatib holds a different opinion concerning the Jews.

In an essay published in January 2007 in which he criticizes the regime of Saddam Hussein, Khatib nevertheless mentions a few of Hussein’s achievements, including “building a massive army; terrifying the Jews; and [creating] an excellent educational system,” Asad AbuKhalil revealed on his blog The Angry Arab.

A former Imam at the Ummayad mosque in Damascus, Khatib has repeatedly called for unity among Syria’s religious groups. Arrested four times since the outbreak of the revolution in March 2011, Khatib finally fled Syrian in the summer of 2011.

AP contributed to this report