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Cablegate: Sheikh of Al Azhar Discusses Countering Extremism

VZCZCXYZ0000
RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHEG #0975 1341053
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 131053Z MAY 08
FM AMEMBASSY CAIRO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 9243
INFO RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC

UNCLAS CAIRO 000975

SIPDIS
SENSITIVE

NSC STAFF FOR PASCUAL

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREL PTER KISL KPAO KIRF EG
SUBJECT: SHEIKH OF AL AZHAR DISCUSSES COUNTERING EXTREMISM

REF: CAIRO 745

1.(SBU) Summary: During a May 7 introductory call, the
Ambassador and Grand Imam Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi,
head of Egypt's Al Azhar institution and Egypt's senior
Islamic cleric, discussed Al Azhar's role in combating
extremism and promoting tolerance and interfaith
understanding. Tantawi also expressed Al Azhar's
appreciation for the Mission-supported English language
program, established in the fall of 2007, to provide English
instruction to junior theology and Arabic language
instructors. Finally, Sheikh Tantawi said Egypt welcomes any
U.S. assistance that leads to "prosperity and development."
End summary.

2.(SBU) Al Azhar, a religious and educational institution,
includes Egypt's oldest university and serves as a pan-Arab
center for Sunni thought and education. In addition to the
university in Cairo, Al Azhar operates schools throughout
Egypt, and, according to Tantawi, has over 2 million
students studying at the elementary, secondary and university
levels. Tantawi spoke proudly of the international nature of
Al Azhar, and said it currently has students from 104
countries.

3.(SBU) According to Tantawi, an Al Azhar education is based
on the rejection of extremism and fanaticism. He reiterated
his condemnation of the September 11 attacks and the killing
of innocents. While he said that people are "not angels" and
"bad things" happen, he sees Al Azhar's mission as educating
students so that they understand Islam's peaceful,
non-violent nature.

4.(SBU) While Tantawi acknowledged that Egyptians and
Americans do not share all religious beliefs, he said that is
no barrier to cooperation Tantawi said that the U.S. and
Egypt share "mutual interests," and cooperation benefits both
countries. Prompted by a question from the Ambassador on how
best the U.S. can help Egypt, Tantawi said Egypt would
welcome any assistance that led to "prosperity and
development."

4.(SBU) Tantawi stressed Al Azhar's role in fostering
equality. He said that Islam draws no distinction between
men and women, and asserted that over half of Al Azhar's
students, including at the university level, are women. On
interfaith issues, Tantawi cited his excellent relations with
the Coptic Church patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, and said that
all Egyptians should be treated equally, regardless of
religion. In September 2007, Tantawi announced that he had
no objection to Christians studying at Al Azhar, a position
he repeated during the meeting.

SCOBEY

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