RIYADH, Oct 18 (Reuters) - A leading group of Muslim clerics has called on Sunnis and Shi’ites to desist from efforts to win converts from the other, but blamed Shi’ite Iran for stoking sectarian tensions in Arab countries.
Fears of a growing sectarian rift have bubbled since Iraq’s Sunni Muslim leader Saddam Hussein was toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2003 and replaced by a Shi’ite-controlled government backed by Shi’ite power Iran.
Leading Sunni cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi said in remarks to Egyptian and Saudi newspapers last month that Shi’ites now had a voice in traditional Sunni countries like Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco through proselytisation. He said this could lead to violence.
Qaradawi’s comments stirred controversy in Iran where he was attacked in the media and among Shi’ite communities in the Arab world, which are mainly concentrated in Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain.
The International Union of Muslim Scholars, which met in Qatar this week to discuss the issue, said Iran bore responsibility for "sectarian strife" and urged each sect to respect the other’s dominant position in different regions.
"Organised attempts by the minority sect to proselytise in areas where the other is dominant should stop, as part of mutual respect between the sects," it said. "The Islamic Republic of Iran should bear its responsibility to end sectarian strife."
"His (Qaradawi’s) statements came from his legitimate responsibility to warn the Islamic nation about the efforts to revive sectarian conflict," the statement published on Qaradawi’s website (www.qaradawi.net) said.
It also called for an end to sectarian fighting and for protection of minorities. Iraq and Lebanon have witnessed sectarian fighting in recent years. Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia complain of second class status, and Sunnis say their brethren in Iran and Iraq are persecuted.
The ageing Qaradawi currently heads the Union, which groups Sunni and Shi’ite scholars from around the world. Saudi daily al-Watan reported disputes this week among members with some favouring a more conciliatory line towards Shi’ites.
The scholars who framed the statement included prominent Saudi Sunni Salman al-Awdah and Ali Fadlallah, son of prominent Shi’ite cleric in Lebanese group Hezbollah Hassan Fadlallah.
Politically, Sunni governments are concerned that non-Arab Iran and its allies including Hezbollah are gaining respect among ordinary Arabs for championing resistance against Israel and U.S. political and military influence in the region. (Reporting by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Sami Aboudi)