CAIRO, Egypt—One rumor goes that Shiite Muslim militants followed three of Saddam Hussein's former officers from Iraq to Egypt to assassinate them. Another tells of Shiite refugees marching through a Cairo neighborhood in a mock funeral for a militiaman who was killed in Baghdad.
Then came a local newspaper's account of a schoolyard brawl in which Shiite kids bludgeoned a Sunni Muslim youth with a lead pipe. And when a truck loaded with gas canisters exploded accidentally in a village in February, it didn't take long for the Egyptian rumor mill to crank into gear.
"The first rumor was, the Shiites did it," said Firas al Atraqchi, an Iraqi-Canadian journalist who followed up on the blast for Al-Jazeera television's Web site.
Like Syria and Jordan, Egypt is fast becoming home to tens of thousands of refugees from the war in Iraq. An estimated 120,000 are here, many of them Shiites. They find safety from the sectarian bloodshed but not from sectarian persecution.
Shiites, a tiny fraction of Egypt's 78 million Muslims, once lived like other religious minorities under President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian reign, tolerated as long as they didn't engage in politics or evangelism.
But with Sunni-Shiite relations throughout the Middle East more strained than at any time in recent history, Shiites here are facing intense scrutiny from authorities and ordinary Egyptians, who regard them as troublemakers or heretics.
The sectarian wariness in a country in which most people will never even meet a Shiite is an example, clerics here say, of how the continued U.S. presence in Iraq and the violence there has unsettled the region.
Before the war, there was little or no talk of sectarian affiliation in Egypt or the rest of the region. Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, however, Egyptian airwaves, newspapers, mosques and coffee shops have been filled with little else.
Top Egyptian clerics and officials blame the Bush administration for a series of important missteps in Iraq—from installing an American to run the country in 2003 to hasty elections in 2005 to the hanging of Saddam at the end of 2006—that polarized Iraq's diverse groups and led to the cycle of bloodshed.
Sheik Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt—the country's senior religious jurist—says an immediate end to the U.S. military occupation of Iraq is a required first step toward reining in sectarianism. The mufti agreed only to respond in writing to questions from McClatchy Newspapers. An aide said the mufti felt that the issue was so sensitive that he didn't want to risk being misinterpreted.
"The cause of sectarian violence in Iraq is the U.S. occupation," Gomaa wrote. "If the U.S. left Iraq I think the situation would become more stable. There are other opinions that say if the U.S. were to withdraw the violence would increase, but we do not approve of occupation under any circumstances.
"Sectarianism is not deeply rooted in the minds of Egyptians so when any form of sectarianism or sectarian conflict occurs, there is always someone or something pulling the strings behind it."
Mubarak's government not only tolerates but also encourages anti-Shiite messages, Shiites complain. Last April, the president himself entered the sectarian fray with published remarks that Arab Shiites are "always loyal to Iran and not the countries where they live."
Egyptian government officials deny a crackdown on Shiites, but they acknowledge that they're closely monitoring sectarianism across the Arab world because of deep concerns over Iran's widening influence and fears that the sectarian battle for Iraq will snowball into a broader war between Sunnis and Shiites.
One senior Egyptian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said he feared that what had been a political conflict could become a much more serious, religiously based confrontation that would engulf the region.
"There is a difference between speaking politically of an axis of Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus, which happen to be inhabited by Shiites, and talk of invoking the worst kind of religious fanaticism," the diplomat said.
For years, Mubarak's forces have kept close tabs on Shiites in Egypt, which a Shiite dynasty ruled for 200 years until the 12th century.
Despite a religious ruling in the 1950s that recognized Shiism as a legitimate branch of Islam, Shiites here are prohibited from worshiping freely. They aren't allowed to publicly profess support for any particular ayatollah or to celebrate Shiite holidays, they're barred from gathering in large numbers and they can't build places of worship known as husseiniyas.
"Why should they have them? Why? We are all Muslims," said Grand Sheik Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, the government-backed top cleric at al Azhar University, one of the world's foremost centers of Sunni scholarship. "In Egypt, we don't need husseiniyas."
Shiites say the government also takes other steps against them, including steering business away from Shiite companies. Shiite workers say they're passed over for promotions. In the past few months, state-backed newspapers have printed anti-Shiite propaganda that includes false information about the sect's religious beliefs and loyalty to Iran.
Mohammed al Dereini, the director of the Higher Council of Ahl al Bayt, a Shiite research and advocacy group in Cairo, said Egyptian authorities had focused on Shiites exponentially more since the war in Iraq began. He said a Shiite-run magazine was shut down, a Shiite charity was shuttered and al Azhar officials even had demanded that a group of Shiite Boy Scouts be stripped of their prize after beating Sunni competitors in a volunteerism contest.
"We're being hunted; we're being oppressed," said Dereini, who spent 15 months in prison on charges such as "belonging to an illegal organization and threatening national security." "It's an art for them to find new ways to oppress us."