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Friday, 12 January, 2001, 16:48 GMT
Lebanon buries highest Shia cleric
Shia women hold pictures of Sheikh Shamseddine
Shi'a women among the mourners at Shiekh Mohammad's funeral
Tens of thousands of mourners, including political and religious leaders from Lebanon, Syria and Iran, have attended the funeral of Lebanon's leading Shi'a cleric, Sheikh Mohammad Mehdi Shamseddine.

Sheikh Mohammad was admitted to a hospital in Beirut earlier this week, suffering from a relapse several days after returning from months of treatment for lung cancer in France. He was 66.

Portrait of Sheikh Mohammad Shamseddine
Sheikh Mohammad was widely respected by all Lebanon's minorities
He was buried in the courtyard of the al-Sadeq mosque, which was built in Beirut during his tenure as head of Lebanon's largest religious community.

Before the burial, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri placed the country's highest decoration, the Grand Ribbon of the Order of the Cedar, on the bier.

Among the mourners was Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of the militant Shi'a group Hezbollah which was instrumental in forcing Israel to end its occupation of southern Lebanon last year.


He was a man who worked for the good of Lebanon

Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir
Sunni Muslim, Christian and Druze religious leaders were also present at the ceremony.

Iran - one of the very few countries in the world where Shia Islam is the official religion - sent two delegations, one from the reformist President, Mohammad Khatami, and one from the hardline supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Advocate of coexistence

Correspondents say Shamseddine was known for his moderation and diplomacy. He led the Shia Higher Council, the highest body for Lebanon's 1.2 million Shi'as, from 1994 until his death.

He was deputy to the council's founder, Imam Mussa Sadr, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances during a trip to Libya in 1978.

Mourners surround the coffin of Shiekh Mohammad Shamseddine
Tens of thousands attended the funeral
He was a staunch advocate of Christian-Muslim coexistence in a country which has struggled to overcome confessional divisions since the devastating 1975-1990 civil war.

"There is no Lebanon without its Christians and there is no Lebanon without its Muslims," he once said.

His stance earned him high esteem in Lebanon, including among leaders of the Christian and Sunni Muslim minorities in Lebanon's 3.5 million population.

Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, controversial head of the Maronite Catholic Church, was among the hundreds of well-wishers, who visited the sheikh after his return from France.

He praised him as "a man who worked for the good of Lebanon".

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