Chechen religious leaders re-open landmark mosque in Syria

Religious leaders of Russia's republic of Chechnya have inaugurated a re-opened landmark mosque in Syria's Homs, once the symbol of the rebellion against President Bashar Assad

In 2013, Syrian government forces captured the Khalid Ibn al-Walid mosque, which sustained heavy damage in the fighting.

Authorities of Russia's mostly Muslim republic undertook the reconstruction efforts for this and other major mosques in Syria, following the start of Russia's military campaign there in 2015. The funds are coming from a murky foundation run by the family of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Rights activists have described the foundation, named after Kadyrov's father, the late separatist turned Russian government ally Akhmat Kadyrov, as the Kadyrov family's personal piggy bank filled by compulsory contributions from ordinary Chechens. Local officials have denied this.

Chechen television on Thursday showed footage of the re-opening ceremony, which took place Wednesday in the west Syrian city. Chechnya's chief mufti Salah Mezhiyev was cutting the ribbon in the mosque's doorway with the Homs governor standing nearby.

Mezhiyev thanked Syrian officials for the chance to rebuild the 13th-century mosque and said the Chechen people, who saw two devastating wars in the 1990s, sympathize with the Syrians.

"We in Chechnya went through brutal wars and we understand you like no one else," Mezhiyev said.

Officials, including Homs Gov. Talal al-Barazi, thanked Chechen officials for the funding and said the mosque is the first major project rebuilt in the Old City's Khaldiyeh neighborhood.

The Khalid Ibn al-Walid mosque holds a special importance for Muslims since it hosts the shrine of Khalid Ibn al-Walid, a companion of Prophet Muhammad. Government shelling in 2013 damaged Ibn al-Walid's tomb and a part of the mosque.

The Kadyrov Foundation has been spending money on rebuilding the war-damaged Great Mosque of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site, and giving out humanitarian aid in government-controlled areas in Syria.

Kadyrov enjoys personal ties with many leaders in the Arab world, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and has been trying to position himself as a champion of Muslims well beyond Chechnya's borders.

Chechen authorities did not provide the budget for the reconstruction in line with their policy to keep their finances secret. The latest public filings show that the foundation had 2.2 billion rubles ($38 million) in net assets at the end of 2017.