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Gaza’s Hamas leader voices support for Syria protests

CAIRO (AP) — The Hamas prime minister of Gaza today expressed support for Syrian protesters seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad, the first time a senior Hamas leader has publicly rebuked the group’s longtime patron.

Ismail Haniyeh said after Friday prayers at Egypt’s Al-Azhar Mosque that Hamas commends ‘‘the brave Syrian people that are moving toward democracy and reform.’’

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Assad has long hosted and supported leaders of the Islamic militant movement, which rules the Gaza Strip, but the group has significantly reduced the presence of its exiled leaders in Syria since the start of the 11-month-old uprising against the Syrian regime.

Some of the top Hamas leaders are now spending most of their time in Qatar, Egypt and Lebanon, as the group tries to distance itself from Assad’s brutal crackdown on opponents.

The United States, which considers Hamas a terrorist organization, viewed Haniyeh’s remarks on Syria positively.

‘‘It just speaks to how isolated Assad is,’’ State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

Haniyeh’s speech was another sign of Hamas’ drift away from longtime backers Iran and Syria, as it finds new allies in the region. Hamas’ isolation has eased since its parent movement, the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, gained political influence in the region, including in Egypt, in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Al-Azhar Mosque is the premier religious institution in the Sunni Muslim world and the platform given to Haniyeh was another show of support for Hamas.

In Friday’s speech, Haniyeh asked the Muslim and Arab world to defend Jerusalem against what he portrayed as Israeli attempts to weaken the Arab identity of the city. With tears in his eyes, he recited an Arabic poem that says that the path to Jerusalem starts in Cairo.

Several Brotherhood members stood by Haniyeh as he addressed thousands of worshippers crammed into the ancient mosque, pledging support for the Palestinians and for Hamas.

The crowd cheered when Haniyeh said Hamas would not recognize Israel. Hundreds chanted ‘‘Hey, Haniyeh, do not leave the gun’’ and ‘‘To Jerusalem, we march in the millions.’’

Hamas is being shunned by the West because it refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence. However, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal has said he is ready to embrace nonviolent protests as part of reconciliation with the rival Fatah movement of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

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Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.

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