QOM, Iran — Shiite and Sunni clerics from about 80 countries gathered in Iran's holy city of Qom on Sunday to develop a strategy to combat extremists, including the Islamic State group that has captured large parts of Iraq and Syria.
Shiite-majority Iran has been helping Iraqi, Syrian and Kurdish forces battle the Sunni extremist group on the ground while the U.S.-led coalition has been bombing it from the air. The Islamic State group views Shiites as apostates deserving of death and has massacred hundreds of captured Syrian and Iraqi soldiers, as well as Sunni rivals.
Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, the chief organizer of the conference, appealed for consensus among Islam's two main branches, urging all Muslim clerics to work to discredit groups espousing extremism.
"Military attacks against this deviant group (IS) are necessary but insufficient. The roots of their violent ideology must be dried up. This is the job of Muslim scholars, to preach the true, moderate face of Islam and expose the ugly face of IS ideology," said Shirazi, a prominent Shiite cleric who has a large following in Iran and abroad.
Iraq's Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, said the Islamic State group is the biggest threat to Islam. "They were created to undermine Islam and destroy Muslim societies. IS kills both Shiite and Sunni Muslims," he said.
Sunni scholar Abdolrahman Sarbazi, who leads Friday prayers in an area of southeastern Iran that is home to many Sunnis, said "Sunni Muslims also condemn the violent practices of takfiris, who are a threat to humanity." ''Takfiri" is an Arabic word for Islamic extremist.
Others repeated widely-circulated conspiracy theories holding that the United States and Israel created the Islamic State group to sow discord in the Muslim world.
"IS is a pawn whose job is to deepen divisions among Muslims," said Mahdi Alizadeh Mousavi, a lower-level Iranian Shiite cleric.
Iran is a strong backer of the Lebanese Hezbollah -- viewed as a terrorist group in the West -- and supports Iraqi Shiite militias that rights groups say have abducted and killed scores of Sunni civilians in reprisal attacks.