RIYADH, June 1 Clerics in Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia attacked minority Shi'ites in a statement on Sunday saying Lebanon's Hezbollah was posturing against Israel to hide an anti-Sunni agenda.
The Saudi government and religious establishment has watched with alarm as the Lebanese Shi'ite group's popularity rose in the Arab world since forcing Israel to withdraw in south Lebanon in 2000 and surviving an Israeli military onslaught in 2006.
Although most Arabs are Sunni Muslims, Hezbollah is generally popular in the region. Saudi Arabia sees the group, which is funded by Shi'ite Iran, as an extension of Iranian power.
"Many Muslims have been fooled by the Shi'ites' claims to be championing Islam and challenging the Jews and Americans and Hezbollah's claims in Lebanon," the statement distributed on Islamic websites said.
"Those who believe their claims have not realised the reality of the infidel bases of their faith ... It was the rejectionist Shi'ites who began the practice of visiting graves and building shrines," it said, citing a major concern of Saudi Arabia's particular brand of Islam, often termed Wahhabism.
"They (Shi'ites) humiliate Sunnis whenever they have the chance, in Iran and Iraq. They are destabilising Muslim countries as happened during pilgrimage and in Yemen."
Some members of a Shi'ite sect in north Yemen, to the south of Saudi Arabia, are locked in rebellion there. Iranian pilgrims making political statements have often clashed with Saudi authorities during the haj pilgrimage.
Hezbollah and its allies won a bigger seat in government after street fighting broke out between government and opposition militias last month, further alarming Riyadh.
The statement was signed by 22 clerics including the leading independent religious scholars Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak and Abdullah bin Jabreen.
The Grand Mufti, who represents the government's position, was not a signatory but he was quoted in the media during last month's fighting in Lebanon saying groups who raise the banner of Islam were exposing the country to the danger of Israeli reprisals, but he did not specify Hezbollah by name. (Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Charles Dick)