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Egyptian clerics spreading fear

CAIRO — One hard-line Muslim cleric on an Egyptian TV station justified sexual assaults on female protesters. Others issued religious edicts saying opposition leaders must be killed.

Television screeds by ultraconservative sheiks are raising fears of assassinations here a day after a top anti-Islamist politician was gunned down in Tunisia.

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Egyptian security officials on Thursday beefed up security around the homes of Egypt’s main opposition politicians, citing the possibility of a Tunisia-type killing after the edicts, or fatwas. The office of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his prime minister denounced the edicts and the top prosecutor began an investigation into one of the clerics.

Two well-known ultraconservative clerics sparked an uproar with their edicts several days ago saying Sharia, or Islamic law, required the killing of opposition figures. A third fanned the flames by justifying a string of mob sexual assaults on female protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

‘‘They are going there to get raped,’’ cleric Ahmed Mohammed Abdullah said, depicting them as loose women. He spoke of their curly hair, saying ‘‘these are devils named women. . . . They speak with no femininity, no morals, no fear. . . . Learn from Muslim women, be Muslims.’’

On his television show on the private Al-Umma station Wednesday, Abdullah, also known as Abu Islam, derided opposition statements that attacking women was ‘‘a red line’’ that must not be crossed.

‘‘Does that apply to these naked women?’’ he said. ‘‘Nine out of 10 of them are Crusaders [Christians] and the rest are . . . widows with no one to rein them in’’ to ensure they remain modest.

Sexual assaults on female protesters have spiked in Egypt’s wave of unrest since late January, with at least 19 reported on Jan. 25 alone. In many cases, mobs stripped women, penetrating them with knives and other objects, according to rights groups.

The television screeds by the clerics reflect the fury with which some ultraconservatives have reacted to nationwide protests against Morsi, which turned into deadly clashes as police cracked down on the demonstrators.

Aides to Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood officials have depicted the protesters as thugs and criminals and have accused opposition politicians of condoning or even fueling violence in an attempt to undermine Morsi.

The hard-line clerics took up that same rhetoric, but went further and declared that protesters and opposition leaders must face punishments under Islamic law for those who cause chaos or try to overthrow the ruler, including death, crucifixion, or amputations of limbs.

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