CAIRO - Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood blamed Shi'ites for creating religious strife throughout Islam's history, as the movement joined a call by Sunni clerics for jihad against the Syrian government and its Shi'ite allies.
In a striking display of the religious enmity sweeping the region since Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah committed its forces behind Syrian President Bashar Assad, a Brotherhood spokesman in Cairo told Reuters on Friday: "Throughout history, Sunnis have never been involved in starting a sectarian war."
Until recently, Egypt's new Islamist president, the Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, was promoting rapprochement with Iran, the bastion of Shi'ite political power and in February he hosted the first visit by an Iranian president in over 30 years.
But spokesman Ahmed Aref said Hezbollah had launched a new "sectarian war" last month by joining Tehran's other key ally Assad in a fight that pits mainly Sunni rebels against a Syrian elite drawn from Assad's Alawite minority, a Shi'ite offshoot.
For that reason, Aref said, the Brotherhood, which emerged from oppression after the fall of military rule two years ago to run by far the most populous Arab state, had joined a call made on Thursday by leading Sunni clerics for holy war in Syria.
That statement, made at a Cairo conference of more than 70 religious organizations from across the Arab world, urged "jihad with mind, money, weapons - all forms of jihad", but stopped short of repeating an explicit call by high-profile Brotherhood-linked preacher Youssef al-Qaradawi for fighters to go to Syria.
Asked whether the Brotherhood would urge Egyptians to travel to the war, Aref said it was still considering its position and would coordinate with the other groups at the conference.
Morsi would address the assembly on Saturday, he added, saying that speech may clarify the Egyptian position: "Up to now there's merely been talk," he said.
"We need to coordinate well in terms of logistics."
An aide to Morsi said on Thursday that Egypt disapproved of external intervention in Syria, notably that by Hezbollah. It was not sending fighters but, he said, the government could not stop Egyptians from traveling and would not penalise any who went to Syria, where he said many were engaged in relief work.
Also on Friday, a leading Sunni cleric from Saudi Arabia, Mohammed al-Arifi, preached at an ancient Cairo mosque, calling for jihad in Syria "in every way possible". Some worshippers waved Syrian rebel flags and dozens of men gathered outside afterward to chant their support for bringing down Assad.
Saudi Arabia, where the monarchy espouses the strict Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, is locked in a regional rivalry with Iran and has been arming the Syrian rebels while Egypt's leaders, who rose to power in the same wave of Arab Spring protests that began the Syrian civil war, have held back from such engagement.
The 7th century rift between Sunni and Shi'ite Islam has fueled violence across the Middle East in recent decades, including the sectarian bloodletting unleashed in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion and the Lebanese civil war of 1975 to 1990.