The Shiite population of the Sunni-dominated Gaza Strip is increasing, while Shiite Iran is experiencing Sunni growth, according to Egyptian news agency Al-Arabiya English. The religious switching has the potential to create serious tension between Hamas and its patron Iran, as these minorities vie for political power and further converts.
Gaza is controlled by Hamas, a Sunni terrorist organization supported by Iran. This religious difference creates a fragile balance, where Hamas struggles between controlling Iran's proselytizing campaign in Gaza while not alienating it. Hamas also wants to rule through a conservative form of Sunni Islamic law, and has put pressure on local Christians, Shiites, and even more conservative Sunni groups like the Salafis.
Increasing numbers of Shiite converts are demanding political rights and even political power. Al-Arabiyah cites and Agence France Presse report about Abdul Rahim Hamad, a converted Shiite who lives in Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, who said the growth of Shia Islam was "due to the influence of Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah in the region."
"We are now hundreds in Gaza. We will start our political activities soon. Palestinian Shiites will play an important role in controlling this region in the future," Hamad said.
It's not a problem Hamas feels comfortable addressing. Ahmed Youssef, an advisor of Hama's Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, denied the growth of Shiites in Gaza and said Palestinians "love Iran and Hezbollah." However, last Thursday the group's security forces shut down an Iranian funded, Shiite organization called al-Baqeyat al-Salehat.
The same tensions exist in reverse in Iran. "While Sunnis are accorded "full respect" in the Iranian constitution, in practice and through social exclusion, Iranian Sunnis suffer discrimination," according to the University of Maryland's Minorities at Risk Project. "The Iranian government has barred the construction of a Sunni mosque in Tehran, and has moderately restricted public displays of the Sunni religion and culture."
The rise of Sunni Islam has been noticeable among Arabs, found mostly in the Iranian province of Khuzestan. They believe that the move will severe their links with Iran, which has alienated them by trying to impose Persian language and culture in the region.
Sunni extremists have tried to capitalize on the tension. Al-Qaida recruiter Hamid bin Abdullah Al-Ali, whose assets were frozen by the United Nations Security Council, recently called for "An Intifada of the Occupied Spaces" in Iran. The call was direct at the Iranian "powers of the occupation, who declared a state of emergency in the areas, shut down schools and companies," and implemented other restrictive measures.
The Sunni issue has caused alarm in Iran and was hinted at by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a 2010 visit to Khuzestan. It was also reinforced by Iranian cleric Mohammed Jawad Adel, who called the Sunni explosion in the border regions a "very serious issue." He urged Iranian authorities to deal with what he called the "Sunni missionary."