Ambassador to Lebanon called Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah a 'decent' man and said world needed more like him
Britain has moved to quash a row over its Middle East policy by taking down a controversial blog post by its ambassador in Beirut praising the late Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a staunchly anti-American cleric who was a mentor for Lebanon's militant Hezbollah movement.
Frances Guy had commented in her blog – on the Foreign Office website – that Fadlallah's death was sad news, calling the religious leader a decent man and saying "the world needs more men like him".
The ambassador's post came to light as the US broadcaster CNN announced that it had sacked its Middle East editor, Octavia Nasr, after she tweeted her regret at Fadlallah's death.
William Hague, the foreign secretary, ordered the offending item removed yesterday. The Guardian has learned that Britain also downgraded its diplomatic representation at Fadlallah's funeral in Beirut on Wednesday, sending just a second secretary. France and Italy were represented by their ambassadors.
Guy's comments drew outrage in Israel, where a foreign ministry spokesman said Fadlallah had inspired suicide bombings. The British ambassador had to decide "whether promoting terror and giving it religious justification can be considered a heritage to be cherished", Yigal Palmor was quoted as saying. Conservative commentators in the UK also objected.
In London a Foreign Office spokesman said today that Guy's post had been removed "after mature consideration".
Diplomats' personal blogs, which flourished under Hague's digitally aware Labour predecessor, David Miliband, may be more closely vetted in future.
Fadlallah was a key figure in the founding of Hezbollah after Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but both he and the group denied he was its spiritual leader.
The Iraq-born cleric was revered as one of Shia Islam's highest religious authorities and was popular for his anti-American and anti-Israeli stances and support for the Islamic revolution in Iran. But he condemned the 9/11 terrorist attacks and held relatively progressive views on the role of women in society – one of the reasons cited by Nasr for her respect for him.
Britain has a more nuanced view of Hezbollah than the US and Israel, although it has proscribed its military wing as a terrorist organisation. Hezbollah is believed to have been behind suicide attacks on US forces and the kidnappings of westerners including Terry Waite and John McCarthy, though it has denied involvement.
Backed by Iran and seen by most Lebanese and Arabs as a resistance movement, Hezbollah confronts Israel with an arsenal it has replenished since the 2006 war. But British diplomats have contacts with its MPs in the Lebanese parliament.
Guy praised Fadlallah warmly. "When you visited him you could be sure of a real debate, a respectful argument and you knew you would leave his presence feeling a better person," she wrote. "That for me is the real effect of a true man of religion: leaving an impact on everyone he meets, no matter what their faith."