Outspoken Lebanese Shiite cleric blasts Hezbollah, and attempts to silence him

Sheikh Yasser Auda lashes Iran-backed terror group as well as corruption in Lebanon and Iraq, drawing fire from the ruling class

Shiite cleric Yasser Auda during an interview with The Associated Press, at his house in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, August 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Shiite cleric Yasser Auda during an interview with The Associated Press, at his house in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, August 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT (AP) — A Lebanese Shiite cleric who has angered politicians and religious leaders in Lebanon and Iraq said Friday that groups including Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group are trying to silence voices of dissent within the sect — including his own.

Sheikh Yasser Auda has developed a reputation on social media in recent years for his criticism of corruption in Iraq and Lebanon. He has also spoken out against the use of violence against opponents of Iran-backed groups in the two crisis-hit countries. He vowed in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday not to bow down even if it costs him his life.

His comments came two days after a department within The Supreme Islamic Shiite Council of Lebanon, the country’s top Shiite religious authority, issued a statement naming 15 clerics whom it said are not qualified to provide religious guidance. Auda was at the top of the list and was almost stripped of his religious status.

But the council later issued a statement saying that the position of the General Directorate for Religious Advocacy did not represent its point of view.

“I don’t recognize The Supreme Islamic Shiite Council of Lebanon,” Auda said in the sitting room of his modest apartment in Beirut’s predominantly Shiite southern suburb of Mreijeh. Auda said he rejects “corruption by politicians who are protected by religious authorities,” in an apparent reference to the council.

He blamed the divisions within the council regarding the statement about his being unqualified to provide religious guidance to competition among clerics who hope to head the council one day.

One of Auda’s harshest comments to go viral on social media, which angered Lebanese as well as Iraqi politicians, came in a speech late last month. “Whoever defends, even with one word, any legislator, cabinet minister or a leader in Lebanon or Iraq is a liar, corrupt and a partner with them,” he said.

“This speech was spread in Iraq and angered politicians and profiteers, especially Shiites,” Auda said, wondering how the oil-wealthy country could have a crumbling infrastructure and many of its citizens living in poverty.

He also blasted some of the religious leaders in the Hawza, the religious seminary of the Iraqi Shiite holy city of Najaf, angering some influential figures in the city that is home to one of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines.

Hezbollah fighters hold the terror group’s flags as they parade during a rally to mark Jerusalem Day in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, April 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

An Iraqi official in Baghdad told the AP that some of the religious leaders in Najaf requested that Auda be prevented from making public statements. Another official said some senior members of Iran-backed groups and some politicians sent complaints to Beirut through Hezbollah’s representative in Iraq, Sheikh Mohammed Kawtharani, demanding that Auda be sidelined.

Both Iraqi officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about religious-related matters. Hezbollah denies any interference in Auda’s case, saying The Supreme Islamic Shiite Council of Lebanon is in charge.

Auda said there is huge pressure on him in Lebanon from Hezbollah and the Shiite Amal group of powerful Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. He referred to the two groups as the “Shiite Duo” whom he said “strictly prohibit any criticism.”

Auda backed the anti-corruption protests that broke out in Iraq and Lebanon in 2019, which were both mostly put down by Iran-backed Shiite groups in Iraq and Amal and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“The Shiite Duo don’t like me because I accuse them of mismanagement, failure and for taking part in corruption in the country by signing on all laws that wasted public money,” he said, referring to decades of corruption and mismanagement that has thrown Lebanon into the worst economic crisis in its modern history.

Auda described the latest attacks against him, including the General Directorate for Religious Advocacy statement, as “moral killing, a killing that lacks a bullet.”

Asked if he fears for his life, Auda said he’s not scared to die.

“I am ready to pay the price but don’t hurt my family. I don’t want more than that,” he said.

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