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Originally published Saturday, October 7, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Syrian Sunnis joining Shiites

Last Sunday, Munir al-Sayed, a middle-age Sunni Arab from the northern city of Aleppo, quietly did something he had done only once before...

The Washington Post

DAMASCUS, Syria — Last Sunday, Munir al-Sayed, a middle-age Sunni Arab from the northern city of Aleppo, quietly did something he had done only once before in his life, without telling his wife or his friends.

Slipping into a Shiite shrine on a business trip to Damascus, al-Sayed removed his shoes in respect, padded across the tiled floor in his stocking feet and bowed his head in prayer — not as a Sunni, but as a Shiite. Surrounded by Shiites, the Sunni lawyer, 42, prayed with hands pressed to his sides as Shiites do, rather than with hands crossed in front of him, as al-Sayed's family and other Sunnis have done for generations.

Al-Sayed's new step across the dividing line between the two main sects of Islam had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the polarizing state of political affairs in the Middle East and the world, he said.

The white-collar worker from Aleppo was seized with a heartfelt desire to pay homage to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose Shiite militia has been seen by many Muslims around the world as having humiliated both the Israeli military and its U.S. ally in Lebanon this summer.

"I'm Sunni, but I belong to Hassan Nasrallah," said the gray-haired al-Sayed, over tea as he and older Sunni and Shiite men, wearing a mix of Western clothes and Arab robes and headdresses, lounged on cushions in a Damascus meeting hall.

Damascus, like the rest of the Islamic world, was in the second week of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

The city's people were gripped in the insomniac rhythm of fasting by day and gathering by night for languid hours of meals, water pipes and conversation.

Sunnis and Shiites


Sunnis and Shiites share most basic religious tenets, but were divided over the leadership of Islam after an associate of the Prophet Muhammad took over when he died in 632 AD. Shiites had favored Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. Shiites account for some 10 percent to 20 percent of the world's Muslims but constitute a majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan.

Source: Council on Foreign Relations, Federation of American Scientists, Congressional Research Service

"I've converted politically," explained al-Sayed, who said he first prayed as a Shiite during this summer's fighting between Hezbollah guerrillas and the Israeli military.

Al-Sayed is far from alone, Shiite clerics here say. Emotions in the Middle East after the war in Lebanon, and at a time of unrelenting carnage in the U.S.-led war in Iraq, illustrate a number of crucial trends in the Islamic world.

Not least, Sunnis and Shiites say, pride in what is perceived as Hezbollah's triumph has fostered respect and a small but escalating number of politically sensitive conversions for the Shiite faith in Syria. Syria is about 70 percent Sunni, and many in the majority have long regarded the tiny Shiite minority as little more than heretics who strayed from the larger, Sunni branch of Islam.

Arab world concern

The burgeoning of Shiism is worrisome to some Sunnis. Sunni leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt all have warned of the increasingly influential "Shiite crescent." The crescent stretches from Afghanistan through Shiite-ruled Iran to Iraq, where a newly empowered Shiite majority holds power, across Syria to Lebanon, where Hezbollah makes its base and Shiites are estimated to be the largest religious group.

On a broader scale, however, some Shiites and Sunnis say the Israel-Hezbollah war brought Shiites and Sunnis closer.

Many Shiites and Sunnis outside Lebanon share a common pride in Nasrallah even as they share a common worry over the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq, clerics and political analysts in Damascus said.

"George Bush has done us a favor. He has united the Arabs," joked Mustafa al-Sada, a cheerful, young Shiite cleric who works with many of the Sunnis who come to Shiite religious institutions here with questions about conversion.

Al-Sada said he knows of about 75 Sunnis in Damascus who have converted since fighting in Lebanon started in mid-July. The war escalated what he said was a growing trend toward conversion to the Shiite faith in recent years.

"We can touch it, sense it," he said. "We get contacts from other countries, asking us to open mosques, send clerics."

A secular analyst close to many officials in Syria's authoritarian government marveled at the sect-crossing allegiances brought on by this summer's war. Al-Qaida, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood vied with statements of varying degrees of support for the fight by Hezbollah, whose Shiite faith normally would make it a target, not an ally, of Sunni groups.

"The Wahhabis and the Shiites getting together!" exclaimed the analyst, in a Western suit and tie, using a term for Sunni fundamentalists.

International presence

The focal point of Syria's conversions is the shrine of Sayedah Zeinab, named for the sister of one of the founding figures of the Shiite faith. It was at the Zeinab shrine where al-Sayed, the lawyer, paid his respects to Nasrallah last Sunday.

Yellow flags with the green Hezbollah emblem dangle in the shrine's courtyard. Inside the shrine, slogans on collection boxes and posters urge Shiite pilgrims from Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Syria and elsewhere to give generously to the Lebanese people in their fight against Israel.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite religious leader, and Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq's militant Shiite cleric and militia and political leader, all maintain offices around the Damascus shrine.

Syria's ruling Assad family belongs to the Alawite sect, a small offshoot of mainstream Shiism. President Bashar Assad, who inherited power from his father, like him enforces secularism in government to help tamp down Syria's Sunni majority.

The government — a patron of Hezbollah — since this summer has promoted the cult of Nasrallah as a way of boosting Assad's popularity.

Posters and billboards have sprung up around Damascus showing the younger Assad in photo montages alongside the smiling, bearded Hezbollah leader. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also appears in some of the composites.

But some Syrians say the government is uncomfortable with the expansion of the Shiite minority, seeing it as a sign of the growing regional influence of Iran. Al-Sada denied the impetus for conversions was coming out of Iran, as a point of Arab pride. "Iran is not the center of the Shiites," the Saudi-born cleric said, stressing that Persian Iran was a relative latecomer to Shiism.

Washington Post reporter Naseer Mehdawi contributed to this report.

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