Story highlights

"I salute the Syrian people," Hamas prime minister says

Public support for anti-government protesters represents an about-face for Hamas

Militant group has received support from al-Assad regime

Jerusalem CNN  — 

In a change in policy, the leaders of the Syrian-backed Islamic militant group Hamas declared their support Friday for anti-government protesters in Syria.

Speaking at Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, told worshipers, “I salute the Syrian people who strive toward freedom, democracy and reform.”

The message was echoed in Hamas-controlled Gaza.

There, at a rally in the southern city of Khan Younis, senior Palestinian leader Salah al-Bardaweel expressed support for the opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Addressing thousands of Palestinians, al-Bardaweel described the Syrian blood being spilled in the fight against the Assad regime as a great loss for the Syrian nation.

Speaking to the Khan Younis rally by phone, Haniyeh praised the revolutions of the Arab Spring and saluted the sacrifices of the Syrian people.

Sermons in Gaza mosques focused on Syria, with imams calling for the freedom of the Syrian people.

The public support for the Syrian protests represents an about-face for Hamas, which had refrained from criticizing the Assad regime since anti-government protests began last March.

The change comes amid intense political pressure on Hamas from various Arab countries and Turkey to break with the Syrian regime, which has been waging a brutal crackdown on anti-government opposition members that, according to the United Nations, has left more 6,000 Syrians dead.

For years, the Islamist group had maintained its headquarters in Damascus and has received monetary and military support from the al-Assad regime.

But Hamas in recent months began distancing itself from its longtime patron. Hamas personnel and their families have left the Syrian capital and the group’s leadership has been in talks with other countries in the region about relocating their headquarters.

Hamas is an Islamist political movement based in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank.

It was formed in 1987 at the start of the first Palestinian intifada as an Islamic resistance movement to Israeli occupation. It took control of Gaza in 2007 after failing to maintain a coalition government with the Palestinian Authority, dominated by its rival Fatah.

The group’s military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, has claimed responsibility for terrorist operations that have included suicide bombings, car bombings and rocket attacks in Israel and attacks on Israeli settlers who live in the West Bank and previously lived in Gaza. Those attacks have claimed the lives of hundreds of Israeli civilians.

The United States and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization.