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Muhammed Faris: Funeral held for Syrian astronaut and pro-democracy figure

The astronaut was an exiled former military general who was the first Syrian to fly into space
Muhammed Fares became the second Arab to fly into space after joining the Soviet Union's Interkosmos programme in July 1987 (Social media)
Muhammed Faris became the first Syrian in space after joining the Soviet Union's Interkosmos programme in July 1987 (Social media)

A funeral procession was held in Syria for astronaut Muhammed Faris on Monday, after his body was transferred to his country of origin following his death in Turkey last week. 

Faris died on Friday at the age of 72 at Sanko hospital in the Turkish city of Gazientep, after battling with illness for several weeks. He had been living there in political exile since 2012. 

Faris was the first Syrian and second Arab to fly into space, after joining the Soviet Union's Interkosmos programme in July 1987. The first Arab to fly into space was Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman al Saud, who took part in the Space Shuttle Discovery mission in 1985.

In the one-week mission, alongside two Russian cosmonauts, Faris observed Syria from orbit and carried out several scientific and geological experiments and investigations. 

"We are now flying over our lovely country, Syria," he said during a live broadcast at the time from space station Mir. "At this happy moment, I'm sending all my deepest respect and love ... to all my people everywhere."

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According to an interview with The National, the Syrian said he was the first person to carry soil from the Earth into space. 

Faris had a distinguished career in the Syrian military, becoming a pilot in the Syrian Air Force in 1973.

He spent several decades in the military, rising to the rank of major general, until the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011 following President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy protests. 

Faris joined those protests, and briefly moved to the city of Kafr Hamra near Aleppo, which was under Syrian opposition control at the time. He eventually fled to Turkey a year later, where over 3.5 million Syrian refugees currently reside. 

In Turkey, he continued taking part in protests against the Syrian government. 

"My dream is to sit in my country with my garden and see children play outside without the fear of bombs," Faris told the Guardian in 2016. "We will see it, I know we will see it. I just wanted a better future for my children, but external influence on the revolution has messed it all up. It’s very difficult."

On Monday afternoon, his body was transported from Turkey to the Aleppo countryside in opposition-controlled northwestern Syria, via the Bab al-Salam crossing. 

Thousands of mourners gathered for a funeral procession later in the day.

Muhammad Ward, an activist who attended the funeral, told the New Arab: "Our participation today had several goals, the most prominent of which is that Major General Muhammed Faris was on the side of the free Syrians since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution.

"The other goal is that the criminal Assad regime deliberately marginalised [Faris] in recent years."

There was little mention of Faris's death in Syrian state media, marking a similar theme to other anti-government figures who have died in recent years, including film director Hatem Ali. 

The US and German embassies in Syria posted messages of condolence on X, formerly known as Twitter, remarking on his advocacy for freedom in Syria. 

Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman al Saud sent his condolences to the family of the astronaut, according to Saudi media

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