In a sign of the difficulties facing the much-discussed rapprochement between Egypt and Iran, Egypt's top religious cleric has warned two visiting Shi'ite delegations against spreading the Shi'ite faith in predominantly Sunni Egypt.

Although the meeting and the comments by Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, head of the Al-Azhar academy in Cairo, were ostensibly about purely religious matters, analysts said the remarks reflected nervousness in Egypt about Tehran’s aspirations for regional hegemony and historical distrust between the two great streams of Islam.

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"The statement had a religious dimension, but it was clearly more a political statement," Sobhi Essaila, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for political and strategic studies in Cairo told The Media Line. "Al-Azhar is a track two, or soft power channel between Egypt and Iran.”

Egypt has begun taking a softer line on Iran since President Husni Mubarak was ousted from power last February, worrying the US and Israel, which had relied on Cairo as an ally in the fight to contain Tehran’s influence. But in spite of Iran’s enthusiasm, Cairo has moved slowly to warm ties.

Al-Tayyeb stated his concern in a meeting on Tuesday with delegations from Iran and Lebanon, who delivered him messages from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iran's speaker of parliament Ali Larijani. It was the first time Al-Tayyeb had met Shiite religious leaders since Mubarak stepped down.

Larijani invited Al-Tayyeb to visit Teheran. But the sheikh expressed more concern about Iranian intentions than warmth. Criticizing Iranian public policy, Al-Tayyeb asked the Iranian delegation to request ayatollahs, or Iranian clerics, to spread a culture of understanding rather than hatred and dispute, Egyptian daily Al-Ahram reported.

"Al-Azhar rejects attempts to spread the Shi'ite doctrine amongst people of the Sunni faith and in their countries," Al-Tayyeb told his guests. "Al-Azhar will stand on the lookout for any calls that divide Muslim unity."

Essaila said that as Egypt was moving diplomatically closer to Iran, the religious leadership was trying to demarcate the red lines that should not be crossed. Ordinary Egyptians were not worried about Shiite proselytizing, but the issue was being inflated by academics, Sunni clerics, and the media, he said.

Still there are signs that official Egypt is growing closer to Iran and its mostly Shiite allies in the region. The visiting delegates were in Cairo for a conference this week "In support of the Resistance," reportedly organized by Iran and Hezbollah. The conference has been held in Beirut since 2002, but was moved to Cairo this year for the first time, Essaila said.

"It was really surprising to witness Shi'ite clerics in the first rows of the conference," Essaila said. "It drew a lot of attention here … such a meeting would never be possible in Cairo in the past.”
    
Although proselytizing is legal in Egypt, the government doesn’t recognize the conversion of Muslims to other faiths.

According to the State Department's 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, religious minorities in Egypt, including Shiites, have been subject to arrests and harassment by government, under the pretext of jeopardizing communal harmony.    

Sunni and Shi'ite strands of Islam have been at odds since the first century of Islam, surrounding questions of the legitimate leadership of the Islamic nation, but also on matters of dogma. About 10-13% of the world’s Muslims are Shi'ite, but only a minuscule ratio of Egyptians.  

A recent poll conducted by James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, shows that Egypt is not the only country fearful of Iranian influences. Iran scored remarkably low in five out of six Arab countries surveyed. Only 14% of Moroccans viewed Iran favourably, and 37% of Egyptians. Lebanon, with a Shiite majority, scored highest – with 63% approval rates.

"They [the Iranians] have played the sectarian card, creating even further tension, and people don’t trust their intentions,” Zogby told the Newsmax website on Tuesday.

Relations between Egypt and Iran have been tense since the arrest in 2009 of a large Hezbollah cell in Egypt, which reportedly monitored shipping in the Suez Canal and planned terror attacks inside Egypt. Earlier this year, Egyptian media frowned at a rare speech by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Arabic, in which he endorsed the Egyptian Revolution. 

Youssef Al-Qardawi, a leading Egyptian-born Sunni cleric, accused Shi'ites of "invading" Sunni societies in a controversial statement in 2008. Qardawi said Sunnis must face-up to the increased presence of Shi'ites, which he described as "heretics".

Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based human rights organization, said Al-Tayyeb's remarks should be understood as those of a Sunni cleric trying to defend his faith.

"The Al-Azhar sheikh isn’t interested in politics as much as he is in safeguarding the Sunni religious establishment," Ibrahim told The Media Line.

He added that the propensity of simple Egyptians to follow Shi'ite customs, such as marking saints' anniversaries and conducting pilgrimages to graves, is what worried Al-Tayyeb. Ironically, Al-Azhar, Egypt's oldest university was established in the tenth century by the country's Shi'ite rulers, known as the Fatimids.

"The Egyptian character was influenced greatly by Shi'ite rites," he said.

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