Egypt's top Islamic cleric on Monday denounced Shiite houses of worship in an outburst against the Muslim sect, telling Iran's envoy in Cairo that the husseiniyas promoted "instability."
Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the imam of the prestigious Sunni Al-Azhar institute, met with the envoy a day after scholars from Al-Azhar and Islamist groups issued a statement condemning what they said were attempts to spread Shiism in Egypt.
Shiites are estimated as a tiny fraction of Egypt's population of 82-million, most of them Sunni Muslim. Shiism is dominant in Iraq and Iran, a regional rival to Egypt and the conservative Gulf monarchies.
Tayyeb told the envoy that Al-Azhar "rejected any husseiniya in Egypt because of their negative effects in destabilising the country and fracturing unity and weakening the national fabric," Al-Azhar said in a statement.
Sunnis have traditionally opposed Shiism, which teaches that many of the Prophet Mohammed's companions revered by Sunnis were corrupt and usurped power from his rightful successor and cousin, Ali.
"We are not against Shiism. They can do whatever they want in their countries, but if we are to draw closer to them, we don't want to hear insults against the companions," Mahmoud Azab, Tayyeb's dialogue adviser, said.
Over the past decades, Al-Azhar has tried to promote a measure of reconciliation between the two streams of Islam, recognising Shiite jurisprudence as legitimate.
But the sect remains taboo in Egypt, partly because of its association with Iran, which has low-level diplomatic representation in Cairo after Egypt broke off ties following Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
In a recent debate ahead of a May 23-24 presidential election, one front-runner, Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, said Shiism must not be allowed to enter Egypt, while another candidate has been forced to battle rumours that he secretly embraced Shiism.
Azab said that Tayyeb's statements were prompted by reports of a husseiniya built in a Cairo suburb which has an Iraqi expatriate community.
"It is reported -- almost confirmed -- that there was a husseiniya in the October 6 (suburb) and the people were unhappy about it," he said.