CAIRO - Egypt's most senior Muslim cleric, a leading voice of mainstream Sunni Islam across the Middle East, has condemned Shi'ites for engaging in "hateful sectarian strife" in Syria.

In a statement that highlighted a deepening rift in the region since Hezbollah committed itself in the Syrian civil war, Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb also condemned the Lebanese Shi'ite militia for turning away from its struggle against Israel.

Hezbollah fighters helped Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces retake the strategic town of Qusair near Homs on the Lebanese border last week from rebels drawn mostly from Syria's Sunni majority and backed by Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia.

"Syria is nothing but a theatre of the absurd in this battle which has become a Shi'ite-Sunni struggle," Tayeb, who heads Cairo's 1,000-year-old al-Azhar academy, said in comments made on Monday.

"We would have wished that the Shi'ites would reject this bait, but the last few days have led one to believe that they have fallen into the trap of hateful sectarian strife."

Al-Azhar, like the Muslim Brotherhood which now governs Egypt, has historically been more open than Saudi clerics toward Iran and Shi'ite Arabs.

But the Syrian war hardened attitudes and the latest actions by Iran-backed Hezbollah on the battlefield have alienated many Sunnis in the region who once admired its fight against Israel.

"Everyone has now become busy, looking away from the Zionist entity, and especially after Hezbollah joined in the fighting alongside the regime against the Syrian people," said Tayeb, who has previously criticised Hezbollah but in less harsh terms.

"Liberating Jerusalem does not pass through Qusair or Homs; al-Azhar can do nothing but condemn this intervention, which contributes to yet more bloodshed and the tearing apart of the national fabric of Syria and the region.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger