Egyptian authorities have arrested 22 men on charges of belonging to a heretical Islamic sect that allows Muslims to pray without ablutions and seek blessings from graves.
The men, including three Lebanese and a Kazakh national, have been charged with membership in an illegal organization and contempt for religion, a judicial source said on Wednesday.
The source said they belong to the al-Ahbash sect – which has a significant following in Lebanon and strong historical ties to Syria – and which is considered unorthodox by many Islamic clerics.
According to the judicial source, the men possessed literature outlining their beliefs, including permitting Muslims to pray without ablutions, contrary to established Muslim practice, and seeking blessings from graves.
The source said the men had been attempting to spread their beliefs on the campuses of al-Azhar University, Egypt's prestigious centre of Sunni Islamic learning, and had managed to recruit a number of followers.
Prosecutors were questioning eight of them, and had ordered the remaining 14 remanded in custody.
The independent daily al Masry al Youm said on Wednesday the men had been arrested more than a month ago.
In a 2003 fatwa issued by Egypt's mufti Ali Gomaa, he described the group as "deviant" and said it sought to "corrupt the Muslim creed and incite sedition amongst the Muslim Ummah. Moreover, they are paid agents to the enemies of Islam."
The Egyptian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the Egyptian penal code contains penalties for broad offences such as contempt for religion.