GAZA CITY - Prominent Muslim scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi arrived in Gaza late Wednesday, May 8, in a major blow to a crippling Israeli blockade on the strip.
"Our whole ambition is to die on the path to Allah, and for long life to Palestine," Qaradawi said upon arrival in Gaza, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.
Leading a delegation of 50 scholars, Qaradawi crossed Egypt's Rafah border terminal into Gaza.
He was greeted by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and senior leaders of the resistance movement.
"Palestine today welcomes the Sheikh of the Arab Spring, the Sheikh of the revolution and the Sheikh of Jihad in Palestine," Haniyeh said in a welcome speech.
The leading Muslim scholar is expected to remain in Gaza for five days, during which he will lead the weekly Friday sermon on May 10.
Qaradawi, the President of the International Union for Muslim Scholars (IUMS), is one of the most influential scholars in the world and is known for his moderate views and is widely respected around the world.
He is also the chairman of the European Council for Fatwa and Research and a trustee of the Oxford University Center for Islamic Studies.
He has published dozens of books, chiefly The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam.
He has vehemently condemned all terrorist attacks in the West, including the 9/11, Madrid and London, as well as the Bali bombing that targeted foreign tourists in Indonesia.
Moreover, he backed Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and has launched a fund-raising effort for the Syrian opposition.
Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone has described Qaradawi as a "leading progressive Muslim" and likened him to reformist Pope John XXIII.
He praised Qaradawi's staunch support to democracy and efforts to bridge the gap between Islam and the West.
Qaradawi called for ending the decades-long Israeli occupation of the Palestinian lands.
"We should seek to liberate Palestine, all of Palestine, inch by inch," he said.
He reiterated confidence that the Israeli occupation will come to an end one day.
"I am sure we will conquer," he said.
"Nobody thought that the people would triumph and oust the tyrants who ruled Egypt and Tunisia. And Syria will also emerge victorious, as well as Islam," he said, referring to the Arab Spring revolts.
The visit of the prominent scholar has gained criticism from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
Mahmoud al-Habbash, the Palestinian minister of religious affairs, said Qaradawi's visit would reinforce internal divisions and support the "separatist entity" Hamas had established in Gaza.
Fatah supporters shunned the reception thrown for Qaradawi.
Qaradawi's visit is a deadly blow to the seven-year Israeli siege on Gaza, home to 1.8 million Palestinians.
Israel imposed a crippling siege on the strip after Hamas was voted to power in 2006.
It further tightened the blockade after the Islamist movement seized control of Gaza after deadly fighting with rival Fatah.The Israeli siege coupled with repeated military attacks have badly worsened the living conditions in the impoverished area.