Druse Clergymen Cross Into Syria

Quneitra, Syria - Nearly 500 Druse clergymen living in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights crossed into Syria on Thursday for an annual pilgrimage to a holy shrine in the Syrian countryside.

The 488 clerics walked 300 yards from the Israeli lines to a Syrian checkpoint at Quneitra, about 40 miles south of Damascus, where they received a warm welcome from waiting crowds.

"I'm overjoyed to be in Syria to see my relatives," said Sheik Suleiman Abu Jabal, 58, a Druse cleric from Mas'ada village who was among the group making the three-day trip.

The visit is "very important for keeping in contact with our relatives in the Golan," said Medhat Saleh, a former Syrian lawmaker waiting for the clergymen.

Israel seized the strategic Golan Heights during the 1967 Middle East war and annexed the territory in 1981, but the move has not been recognized by the United Nations.

Some 17,000 Arabs who follow the Druse religion — an offshoot of Islam — live on the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan along with 15,000 Israeli settlers. Nearly all the Arabs have rejected Israeli citizenship and retain strong ties with Syria, which provides them with free university education.

Since 1988, Israeli authorities have allowed Druse to perform the pilgrimage to the Habil shrine at Zabadani, 28 miles west of Damascus.

Habil is the Arab name for Abel, Cain's brother. The two sons of Adam and Eve are mentioned, though not by these names, in the Quran, Islam's holy book, which tells the well-known biblical story of the first murder.

Irenee Herbet, the communications and field officer at the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the clergymen's crossing went smoothly, adding Israel's permission for the group to stay in Syria for three days was "a positive signal."

Syrian-Israeli peace talks broke down in January 2000 after Syria wanted assurances that Israel would withdraw completely from the Golan Heights and all land captured in 1967. Israel refused and insisted the issues of security arrangements and normalization be spelled out first.