(Reuters) - Iran has condemned what it called a Syrian rebel attack on a shrine where remains of a 7th-century figure revered by Shi'ite Muslims were dug up and taken away, highlighting how Syria's civil war is inflaming sectarian anger.
A report of the desecration of the Hojr Ibn Oday shrine near Damascus, posted with photographs on Facebook in late April, could not be verified but it prompted the Shi'ite leadership in Tehran to urge respect for holy sites in a conflict where the rebels include Sunni Islamists hostile to Iran.
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted by Iranian Press TV saying: "Such acts could ignite the fire of religious rifts among followers of the divine religions". He urged international organizations to safeguard sacred Islamic and Christian places in Syria, an ancient crossroads for religions.
Syria's two-year-old conflict pits insurgents, most of whom are drawn from the country's Sunni majority, against Iranian-allied President Bashar al-Assad and an elite dominated by his Alawite minority, whose faith is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
The rebel movement includes Syrian and foreign fighters imbued with ideas of Sunni Islam, prevalent in Saudi Arabia, which deem Shi'ites apostates and their shrines as unIslamic pagan symbols that should be smashed. Some Islamist militants pledge allegiance to al Qaeda, whose interpretation of Sunni teaching has fueled sectarian bloodletting in neighboring Iraq.
There have been increasing reports of some of Syria's many Shi'ite shrines being desecrated as Sunni rebels have gained ground since late last year, but are difficult to verify, given restrictions on independent media access to the country.
The Facebook page purported to show the Hojr Ibn Oday sanctuary, which was a popular pilgrimage site in the Damascus suburb of Adra before Syria's conflict killed off tourism, had been pillaged and Oday's bones exhumed. A photograph showed two bearded gunmen in camouflage beside what looked like an opened crypt in the floor of a room that had ornate decoration.
In Tehran, local media said "large numbers" of Iranian students had rallied in protest at the attack and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei condemned the "bitter incident" and urged Muslims around the world to voice outrage.
In another Damascus suburb is the Sayyida Zeinab shrine, a gold mausoleum dedicated to the daughter of Imam Ali, the 7th-century son-in-law of Mohammad who is the second most revered figure in Shi'ite Islam after the Prophet himself.
Zeinab's shrine is intricately adorned with blue ceramics and surrounded by a white marble courtyard which attracted pilgrims in droves before the uprising against Assad erupted.
Iraqi Shi'ite militants say some of their volunteers have entered Syria to protect the site as Sunni rebels have battled their way to the gates of the Syrian capital.
They say they are motivated partly by the desire to prevent a recurrence of the sectarian carnage that followed the 2006 destruction of the important al-Askari mosque in the Iraqi city of Samarra, which provoked Shi'ite fury against Sunnis there.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi'ite Hezbollah movement, also an ally of Assad, warned on April 30 of "serious repercussions" if Sunni rebels attacked the Sayyida Zeinab shrine.
In December, Human Rights Watch said, Sunni Islamists burned and looted a husseiniya, or Shi'ite prayer hall, in the northern province of Idlib. A video showing the event was posted online.
Other renowned monuments to antiquity in Syria have also been battered in the war. The souk in Aleppo's Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has burned down. The 2,000-year-old Roman temple and colonnade in Palmyra have been badly damaged.
And fighting has been inching towards the 7th-century Umayyad mosque in central Damascus that features a shrine said to contain the head of St. John the Baptist.
Reporting by Marcus George and Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai and Erika Solomon and Oliver Holmes in Beirut; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Alastair Macdonald