"He is a man of the people, a very popular figure who is close to the young and knows how to talk to them," said Maath al-Shami, a Damascus-based activist who said he spent a lot of time talking to al-Khatib before and after the uprising began.
"Al-Khatib has an open mind and he comes from a respected family. He is not a politician, but I think he is someone that all Syrians can rally around and trust," he added.
At first glance, the soft-spoken, somewhat professorial al-Khatib may not come across as a commanding figure. In interviews and speeches, he uses language full of metaphors and flowery images. Unlike many clerics who wear flowing robes, he wears a suit and sports a short, graying beard.
But at anti-government rallies, al-Khatib has proved to be a fiery orator.
At a protest in the Damascus suburb of Douma in April 2011, he climbed a podium, grabbed a microphone and urged demonstrators to repeat after him: "Peaceful, peaceful, peaceful!"
The protest was organized by a crowd mourning Sunni demonstrators who were said to have been killed by pro-Assad militiamen from the president's Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Al-Khatib stressed unity among Syrians and preached against hatred and sectarianism. Standing next to him were two prominent Alawite and Christian regime opponents.
"I say to you that Alawites are closer to me than many other people I know," he said. "When we talk about freedom, we mean freedom for every single person in this country."
Omar al-Rami, a student and rights activist who left Syria earlier this year, fearing arrest, said al-Khatib's election gave him renewed hope after months of frustration at the ineffectiveness of the opposition.