(Corrects spelling of Shiites in headline.)
Iran blamed unidentified foreign enemies for the killing of an Egyptian Shiite Muslim leader, amid rising domestic and international criticism of President Mohamed Mursi ahead of rallies seeking his resignation.
Eight people were arrested in connection with the murders of Shiite leader Hassan Shehata, two of his brothers and a fourth person in a village in Giza district on June 23, according to an e-mailed statement from the Giza Security directorate today.
Villagers belonging to Egypt’s majority Sunni Muslim sect had surrounded Shehata’s home, threatening to set it ablaze if the 70 Shiites inside did not leave the village before the end of the day, the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper reported today. When they refused, villagers stormed the house, dragging people along the ground before beating the four to death. Videos on YouTube showed hundreds of residents denouncing their victims as infidels and hauling their blood-soaked bodies while chanting “Allahu akbar,” or “God is Great.”
Mursi’s critics blame him for rising sectarian violence that has also seen Coptic Christian churches and worshipers attacked since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak two years ago. Protesters plan to gather on June 30 to call for his removal.
Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites are rising across the Arab world, with Sunni leaders including Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born cleric with ties to the influential Muslim Brotherhood, calling on Sunni Muslims to join a holy war in Syria.
Iran said attempts to deepen rifts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims are a “plot or scheme that is part of the goals of the foreign enemies,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araghchi told reporters in Tehran today. “Enemies of Egypt have been hurt by the revolution and to compensate, they are going to divide and polarize ethnic and religious sects” in the country.
Iranian officials have accused Western nations including the U.S., which it often refers to as an enemy, of intervening in regional politics with the aim of sowing division. The killings have been condemned by Egypt’s presidency.
There are about 500,000 Shiites in Egypt and they face increasing sectarian discrimination, according to Mohamed Ghoneim, head of the Coalition of Egyptian Shiites. The country is the most populous in the Arab world with about 84 million people.
The attack came several days after a number of Salafis, who embrace an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam, insulted Shiites during a rally attended by Mursi, who listened silently while preachers called on him not to allow Shiites to corrupt Egypt, with preacher Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud calling them “unclean.”
Ultraconservative Islamists oppose what had been a growing rapprochement between long-time regional rivals Iran and Egypt. The conflict in Syria has tested that warming, with Iran supporting President Bashar al-Assad and Egypt siding with the largely Sunni opposition.
In April, Egypt suspended charter flights from Iran under pressure from ultraconservative Sunni Muslims who say better relations will allow Iran to spread Shiite beliefs in the country. Flights had begun on March 30 for first time in 34 years, after both countries signed a tourism agreement.
Opposition and human rights groups have condemned the attacks on Shiites and blamed them on the Islamist regime of Mursi for its inflammatory discourse.
“By not disassociating himself and his government from the hatred and incitement against Shi’as expressed during an event at which he was a speaker, President Mursi failed to signal that attacks against Shi’a Muslims will not be tolerated,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.
To contact the reporters on this story: Salma El Wardany in Cairo at email@example.com; Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at email@example.com