India, under pressure to accept Rohingya refugees fleeing state-organised violence in nearby Burma, has seized on comments made by the highest Islamic authority in government-controlled Syria suggesting that the Muslim minority is a “threat” to India’s security.
The number of Rohingya forced to leave their homes for neighbouring Bangladesh and further afield has been exaggerated by Western media, Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun said in a recent interview with Indian news channel World is One.
“I sincerely wish the Indian government to open a dialogue with the government of Myanmar. There is a big propaganda [sic] against the government of Myanmar and the story is not as clear as what has been reported in the media.
“These ‘450,000 refugees’ is repeated at least 100 times in one day, while Saudi Arabia has cost Yemen nine million refugees and there is no mention about this,” he said, going on to lend his support to India’s stance that the Rohingya are a threat to security.
While the Saudi blockade of Yemen has prevented most civilians from leaving the country, more than nine million have been internally displaced because of violence in the almost three-year-old civil war.
An army crackdown triggered by an attack on 25 August by Rohingya insurgents on Burmese security forces has triggered a major humanitarian crisis in the country, rights groups say.
Hundreds of people have been raped and killed and nearly 500,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh after their villages were burnt to the ground in what the UN has described as a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing.
“[The media] has made a very big issue of the Myanmar problem to get the attention of the Muslim world,” the cleric continued.
“They have five mosques in Yangon the capital. If the government there is burning the mosques in Rakhine, why are they not burning the mosques in the capital?
“We need to study the problem in Myanmar… is it a religious problem? Or is it a security issue? Religion is being used as a scapegoat for a reason.
In India, the government has tried to justify the planned deportation of up to 40,000 Rohingya by linking them to extremist groups such as Isis and spy agencies in Pakistan. Rohingya community leaders have repeatedly denied the allegations.
The situation is currently under review by the Supreme Court.
Sheikh Hassoun, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is believed to have had direct involvement in the execution of 13,000 political prisoners in the regime’s infamous Saydnaya prison, Amnesty International says.
Syria’s complex civil war, now in its seventh year, has left half a million people dead and driven around half of the pre-war population of 22 million from their homes.
Around five million Syrians are now refugees elsewhere, the majority in neighbouring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.