BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon's Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah was buried on Tuesday, mourned by hundreds of thousands who paid homage to an early mentor of Hezbollah who became one of Shi'ite Islam's highest authorities.
A sea of men and women from across Lebanon, dressed in black, walked through Beirut's southern suburbs carrying pictures of the white-bearded, black-turbaned cleric, as well as black flags and mourning slogans. Many were weeping.
Fadlallah died on Sunday, aged 74, after being admitted to hospital suffering from internal bleeding.
He was seen as the spiritual leader of the militant movement Hezbollah when it was formed after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The group was blamed for abduction of Westerners in the 1980s and attacks on U.S. and French targets in Lebanon.
Fadlallah repeatedly called for the hostages to be released, saying he opposed kidnappings, and later distanced himself from Hezbollah's close ties to Iran.
He was a revered marja'a, or source of emulation, for many Shi'ites across the Middle East and Central Asia.
Clerics carried his coffin on their shoulders from his home around the streets of southern Beirut where he lived most of his life and started his charitable institutions. Pictures of Fadlallah, several metres high, hung outside mosques and in the streets. His speeches were broadcast from speakers.
The funeral procession stopped at several locations including the site of a car bomb which targeted him in 1985, killing 80 people, which he blamed on the United States. He was buried at the Hassanein mosque where he used to preach.
Fadlallah was known in Shi'ite circles for his moderate social views, especially on women. He issued several notable fatwas, or religious opinions, including banning the Shi'ite practice of shedding blood during the mourning ritual of Ashura.
"He was a supporter of women and was always by their sides. He taught us not to submit to men but rather to be side by side with them," said Maaden Hamza, who was attending the funeral.
Delegates from across the Middle East including Kuwait, Bahrain, Iran, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Iraq, as well as many Lebanese from abroad, took part in his funeral.
"He was a uniting force and believed in bringing different view points together between Sunni and Shi'ites," said Omar al-Kaissi, a Sunni Muslim from Morocco, who was at the funeral.
Hussein Taher, a Lebanese living in Nigeria, said nobody would be able to replace Fadlallah as a guide and mentor.
Several Lebanese officials and Sunni and Druze clerics also took part in the funeral.
"DEATH TO ISRAEL"
Fadlallah was a supporter of Iran's Islamic Revolution and one of the first backers of the Iraqi Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
A critic of the United States, which designated him a terrorist, Fadlallah used many of his Friday prayer sermons to denounce U.S. policies in the Middle East, particularly its alliance with Israel.
But he was also quick to denounce the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States which killed some 3,000 people.
Many among the crowd held their fists in the air and chanted: "Death to America and death to Israel."
On the eve of the funeral, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah visited the hospital where Fadlallah died to pray at his coffin.
Hezbollah and the Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr declared three days of mourning among their followers. Lebanon's government declared Tuesday an official day of mourning, closing government offices.
Fadlallah was born in 1935 in the Iraqi Shi'ite city of Najaf, where he studied before moving to Lebanon in 1966.
In his final sermon, delivered by a deputy on Friday, he condemned Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and criticised the United States for "giving cover to the enemy (Israel)".
(Writing by Mariam Karouny; Editing by Peter Graff)