Cairo: A competition by Al Azhar, one of the world’s most prominent Sunni Muslim institutions, on tackling the “dangers of Shiism” has triggered a debate in Egypt.

The competition, announced last week, targets expatriate students at the prestigious seat of learning, requesting them to present research on “reasons for spread and dangers of Shiism in Sunni communities and how to confront it”.

The applicants are asked to present papers on Sunni scholars and their books that refute Shiism.

The controversial competition also calls on students to apply with papers on Al Azhar’s efforts in facing the “tide of Shiism”. The contest has an artistic category where entries can take the form of plays, short stories, poems, designs and sermons on Shiite ideology, and refuting it.

Winners are promised cash prizes totalling 42,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh19,000).

The competition has been unveiled at a time of regional conflicts that have ideological backgrounds.

Some critics have condemned the contest as divisive.

“There are people who want to see the Holy Al Azhar destroying its religious and historical values,” said columnist Saeed Al Shahat. “Instead of having Al Azhar as an institution bringing people closer, it becomes an institution for divergence,” added Al Shahat, from the independent newspaper Al Youm Al Sabaa. “The latter case is the aim of the evil powers that plan to turn the Arab region into a conflagration of sectarian and ideological wars. This means that Muslims and Christians should be perpetually at odds and that the Sunni Muslim becomes an enemy of the Shiite Muslim.”

In a statement announcing the competition, Al Azhar said it was part of its “enlightenment and cultural role”.

Al Azhar has allowed studying Shiism since mid-1960s. However, in recent years, the influential institution and other religious authorities in mostly Sunni Egypt have stepped up efforts to counter the promotion of Shiism allegedly spearheaded by Iran.

“This competition is a step in the right direction and I pray to God to reward those responsible for it,” said Hussain Abdul Gani, a Sunni cleric. “It is particularly important because it focuses on expatriate students studying at Al Azhar with the aim of acquainting them with the attempts of the Persians (Iranians) to sneak into Sunni societies and disseminate their fallacies.” There are an estimated 40,000 foreign students at Al Azhar.

There are no official figures about the numbers of Shiites in Egypt. Independent statistics put them at around 75,000 in this country of 90 million. However, Egyptian Shiite leaders say their community surpasses one million.

Egypt’s Shiites have often complained about being barred from practising their rituals in public.

In October, Egyptian authorities barred Shiites from gathering to commemorate the death anniversary of Hussain, Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) grandson, at a famed mosque named after him in Cairo. Hussain is venerated by Shiites.

At the time, the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Affairs closed the site for two days and said in a statement that the move was intended to “prevent the practice of rituals which have no origin in Islam and problems that can result from them”.