Middle East

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef: Thousands attend Jerusalem funeral

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Media captionThe BBC's Yolande Knell: "This is an extraordinary spectacle"

Several hundred thousand people have attended the funeral in Jerusalem of influential Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

The rabbi, who was the leader of the Sephardic Jewish community, died earlier on Monday at the age of 93.

Orthodox Jews wearing black clothing congregated outside the seminary where he studied. Israeli police said more than 700,000 people were participating in the funeral.

An ambulance service spokesperson said 40 people had received minor injuries.

Crowds of people surrounded the van carrying Rabbi Yosef's body. Streets have been closed off and thousands of additional police deployed.

"We estimate there are more the 700,000 people taking part in the largest of funerals ever in Israel," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said on Twitter.

The rabbi was a leading Torah scholar and arbiter of Halacha, or Jewish law.

He was also the spiritual leader of the Shas party, which he founded in 1984 to boost representation for Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin.

Image caption Israel's president and prime minister both attended Rabbi Yosef's funeral

Until then, Israel's government and religious institutions had tended to be dominated by Ashkenazi Jews - those of European descent.

Though it is currently in opposition, Shas became a kingmaker in several coalition governments.

Shas leader Arye Deri wept uncontrollably following the announcement of the rabbi's death.

"How will we remain alone? Who will lead us?" he asked, referring to the rabbi as "our father".

Israel's President Shimon Peres had visited the rabbi in hospital as his condition deteriorated on Monday.

The president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were both present for the funeral, which took place on the day of the rabbi's death in accordance with Jewish custom.

Controversial comments

Mr Netanyahu had expressed "deep sorrow" at the news of Rabbi Yosef's death, describing him as "among the greatest rabbis of our generation".

Image caption Rabbi Yosef wielded spiritual and political influence

"Rabbi Ovadia was a giant in Torah and Jewish law and a teacher for tens of thousands," he said in a statement.

"The Jewish People have lost one of the wisest men of this generation."

The Iraqi-born cleric was also known for his controversial comments about Arabs, secular Jews, liberals, women and gay people.

He once likened Palestinians to snakes, and in 2010 called for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to "vanish from our world".

However, he also encouraged Israeli politicians to engage in the peace process with the Palestinians and by abstaining, helped secure the passage of the first Oslo peace accord through the Knesset.

President Abbas, meeting visiting Israeli MPs in Ramallah on Monday, asked them to send his condolences to Rabbi Yosef's family.

The rabbi's son, Yitzhak Yosef, is the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel.

Image caption Ultra-Orthodox Jews carry the body of Rabbi Yosef during the funeral procession
Image caption A follower of the rabbi takes a snapshot with a mobile phone during the funeral
Image caption Some mourners perched in precarious locations for a glimpse of the procession
Image caption An Israeli man carrying a picture of Rabbi Yosef begs for money during the funeral
Image caption Mourning continued as night fell in Jerusalem
Image caption Police closed off streets as more than 700,000 turned out

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