A prominent Syrian Muslim cleric in charge of the Damascus region was killed Thursday when a bomb planted in his car exploded outside the capital, Syrian state news agency SANA said.
Adnan al-Afiyuni, the Sunni Muslim mufti for Damascus province, was considered to be close to President Bashar Assad, who hails from the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said the 66-year-old cleric played a key role in reaching reconciliation deals with rebel fighters on the capital’s outskirts during the country’s nine-year war.
Afiyuni died “as the result of an explosive device planted in his car” in the town of Qudsaya, northwest of the capital, SANA quoted the religious endowments ministry as saying. Other reports said he was killed by a bomb planted on the side of a road.
It was not known who planted the bomb and no group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
He was one of the mediators of the 2016 deal under which rebel fighters in Daraya, a key town in the Damascus suburbs, surrendered after a four-year grueling siege and military campaign. The rebel fighters and remaining residents were evacuated to the northwestern province of Idlib and government forces entered the destroyed town in 2016.
After the evacuation, Afiyuni led prayers in the town which were attended by Assad.
The Muslim cleric, who sported a long white beard, hailed the town as an example for Syria.
He told those listening Daraya was “living proof for all Syrians that the only option available to you is reconciliation and abandoning fighting.”
Daraya was one of the first towns to stage a protest against Assad’s government in 2011. The protests were met with a violent government crackdown, and the crisis eventually descended into a full-blown civil war that has devastated Syria and left millions homeless, displaced, imprisoned or dead.
Assad described his opponents, including those who carried arms, as terrorists and empowered Islamic clerics and the ministry of Awqaf to play a key role in combatting extremism. Assad appointed Afiyuni in 2019 to head the newly-founded Islamic al-Sham Center to combat terrorism.
At the time, Afiyuni said the center — which was to teach and train Islamic clerics while aiming to also host international scholars — would play a role to reform extremist ideas spread during the years of the conflict.
Explosions have been relatively rare in and around the capital since government forces expelled the last rebels and jihadists from its doorstep in 2018.
After a string of military victories backed by key ally Russia, the government has regained control of around 70 percent of the country, the Observatory says.
The monitor says Syria’s war has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions from their homes since starting in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests.