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Sectarian tensions boil over into Syria

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In a town that lies about five miles southwest of Damascus, the twin minarets of a partially constructed Shiite mosque pierce the sky and its drab cinder blocks blend in with the surrounding winter dreariness.

But apart from its dull facade, the Iranian-funded Tomb of Sukaina stands out. Although the mosque contains what is believed to be the remains of a descendant of the prophet Muhammad revered by Shiites, it is located in an area that is home to ultraconservative Sunnis.

"They say it's the grave of Sukaina, but she's got about three in Syria," says Radwan, a bespectacled resident, in hushed tones. "It's for them, not for us," he says, referring to the Iranians. "There are no Shiites here, but maybe they want to create some."

For more than four decades, Syria has been a fiercely secular state. Its majority-Sunni population is ruled by a minority Shiite sect, the Alawites, and governed by the Baathist Party. Until recently, modest public displays of faith were tolerated but not encouraged. Unlike most other Arab countries, for example, the state does not televise Muslim Friday prayers.

But Syria has seen a growing religiosity over the past few years. Spurred in large part by the civil war in Iraq to the east and rising Sunni-Shiite tensions in Lebanon to the west, Syrians are increasingly aware of their sectarian identities. In a region roiled by religious tensions, the country's majority Sunni population now views Syria's deepening relationship to Shiite Iran with creeping suspicion.

"Syrians are speaking of Shiitization," says Redwan Ziade, a political analyst and human rights activist in Damascus. "It's a very sensitive issue. There has been an increase in internal problems between Syrians based on sectarianism, but it won't come to the surface because there's no means for it to."

Whisperings of new Iranian-funded Shiite religious institutions abound, as do rumors that Iran is offering cash and other incentives to persuade Sunnis to convert.

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