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Egypt wants Obama to speak from mosque

Egyptian officials hope President Barack Obama will choose 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar mosque, the heart of a revered institution for Islamic study, as his backdrop for his June 4 speech.
Mideast Egypt Obama
The Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, Egypt. Egyptian officials hope that when President Barack Obama addresses the Muslim world in a speech from Cairo next month, he will choose the 1,000-year-old mosque, a potent symbolic backdrop that would convey his respect for Islam.Str / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When President Barack Obama addresses the Muslim world from Cairo next month, Egyptian officials hope he will choose 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar mosque, the heart of a revered institution for Islamic study, as his backdrop to convey U.S. respect for Islam.

The American Embassy in Cairo said no decision has been made yet on a venue for Obama's June 4 speech on U.S. relations with the Muslim world. But two Egyptian security officials said Thursday that an American advance team scouted five potential sites this week and narrowed it down to a short list of three — the Al-Azhar mosque and two other locations connected to it.

Al-Azhar is one of the oldest, most prestigious and most influential institutions of higher learning for Sunni Islam.

Delivering his message from the 10th-century mosque would convey the American president's regard for Islamic religion, culture and history, Al-Azhar officials said.

"Al-Azhar is a beacon of knowledge and moderation for the whole Islamic world," said Sheikh Fawzi Zefzaf, a prominent Al-Azhar scholar.

'Spread values of justice'
Sheik of Al-Azhar Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi welcomed Obama to use his podium. He said a speech from the mosque could "open the door for a dialogue of reason between the world's cultures and civilizations to spread values of justice and good against hatred and violence."

The historic mosque was built in 972 by the Fatimids, Shiite Muslim rulers who had just conquered Egypt and built Cairo as their capital. Later Egypt came under Sunni rule, and the mosque became a prestigious center for the teaching of Islamic thought and philosophy.

Over the centuries, numerous rulers added to the sprawling building, which boasts five minarets and numerous domes, along with columned prayer halls and madrasas — or religious schools — around a central open courtyard. It lies in the heart of Islamic Cairo with its maze of small alleyways and bazaars.

The mosque holds a special place in Egypt's more recent political history as well, a symbol of resistance against Western imperialism. Nationalists launched marches and protests from the mosque during a 1919 revolt against British rule. In 1956, then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser gave a famed speech from Al-Azhar's pulpit rallying Egyptians against an invasion by Britain, France and Israel.

Powerful institution
Today, Al-Azhar University has expanded into several modern campuses. It hosts thousands of students of Islamic theology every year, exports clergy throughout the Muslim world and the U.S. and its clerics issue edicts that carry a moral weight that influences well beyond the borders of Egypt. Within the country, Al-Azhar is empowered to censor books, movies and other media related to religion.

Since he took office in January, Obama has reached out repeatedly to the Islamic world. He is well liked in the Middle East, where people often mention enthusiastically that his father was a Muslim from Kenya.

Choosing Al-Azhar, a Sunni institution, could also help ease Sunni fears over U.S. efforts to open a dialogue with Shiite Iran. Predominantly Sunni U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia accuse Iran of destabilizing the Middle East.

The Egyptian officials said in addition to the mosque, the advance team looked at a conference center and a meeting hall that are part of Al-Azhar but in other parts of Cairo. They said the team ruled out Cairo University because it would have disrupted year-end exams, and Cairo Convention Hall which was deemed too shabby.

A matter of shoes
American Embassy spokeswoman Margaret White said there has been no decision yet on the venue.

Among the myriad security considerations if Obama speaks from the mosque are the problems posed by the thousands of shoes that would have to be checked at the door in accordance with Muslim tradition, the Egyptian security officials said.

First, there is the problem of where to put them all. But the bigger concern is they could provide cover for bombs, said the two officials from the president's office and the Ministry of Interior who are responsible for the security for visiting foreign dignitaries. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

Worshippers and other visitors traditionally remove their shoes before going into mosques and place them on a rack outside.

Al-Azhar mosque holds about 1,000 people. But normally, worshippers can wrap them in plastic bags and take them inside or leave them on trucks outside. However during an Obama speech, the audience would be barred from carrying bags inside for security reasons.