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Top Muslim cleric banishes smoking

06/07/01

BEIRUT, Lebanon · A senior Shiite Muslim cleric -- saying he is motivated by love and concern for the health of his followers -- has issued a religious edict ordering them to stop smoking.

The ruling, or fatwa, of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah has ventured into territory that many in the Arab world consider taboo -- the freedom to puff away, anytime, anywhere. "Smoking represents an affliction which is responsible for the death of millions of children, women and men," Fadlallah told The Associated Press in an interview on Wednesday. "A smoker is committing two crimes, one against himself and the other against the one inhaling next to him." Fadlallah, 66, is a senior Shiite religious authority worldwide. Although he denies it, the militant cleric is widely believed to be the spiritual guide of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese guerrilla group that fought Israeli occupation forces in southern Lebanon until Israel withdrew last year. The white-bearded Fadlallah said he was once a heavy smoker himself, but kicked the habit 50 years ago. The edict is binding for thousands of Lebanese and Arab Shiite Muslims, but nobody expects it to prompt many chain-smokers to quit. Fadlallah said he issued a similar fatwa several years ago and reaffirmed it this week on the occasion of the international day against smoking. He publicized the ban in an interview with Lebanon's Future Television station Tuesday night. When told his edict could anger Arab smokers, the cleric said, "I issued this fatwa out of my love for them and their safety." Fadlallah noted that the Quran, the Muslim holy book, advises Muslims to avoid anything that harms the body, like alcohol and gambling. The ban includes smoking cigarettes and water pipes -- favorites in the Arab world -- as well as cigars and pipes. The World Health Organization estimates that smoking kills more than 4 million people around the world every year, a figure that could rise to 10 million a year by 2030 because of increasing tobacco use in developing countries. Smoking in the Arab world is part of the social and cultural life. There are few restrictions on youngsters buying cigarettes and rules that exist on smoking in the workplace or in public places are rarely enforced. In Lebanon, advertisements of tobacco products appear on billboards, in newspapers and on television. On the streets, traffic police puff away. In taxis, drivers and passengers light up without asking if the other passengers mind. In cafes, men and women of all ages smoke the water pipe for hours on end. At home, a tray offering an assortment of cigarettes is a sitting-room fixture. In a mixed Christian-Muslim and open society like Lebanon's, Fadlallah's edict was not expected to cause any significant change in smokers' habits. It is, however, expected to be accepted by followers among the 1.2 million Shiite community here and Shiites abroad who recognize him as their marjaa, or religious authority. Still Fadlallah's edict put Abed Khalife in a bind. The 33-year-old cashier in the southern Muslim city of Sidon will have to give up his beloved water pipe if he wants to remain faithful to his cleric. "I have not decided yet," Khalife, a Shiite, said. Then he paused: "But of course I will follow what he says." At the Kawkab el-Sharq (Star of the Orient) water pipe cafe in Sidon, shouts of disapproval erupted among some of the dozen customers when told of the edict. "I'm not addicted to smoking, but still I am not going to deprive myself of it," Hussein Hamdan, a 40-year-old Shiite, said.

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