- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 16, 2009

CAIRO | When President Obama addresses the Muslim world from Cairo next month, Egyptian officials hope he will choose the 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.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Margaret White said there has been no decision yet on the venue for Mr. 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 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 Sheik Fawzi Zefzaf, a prominent Al-Azhar scholar.

Al-Azhar’s chief cleric, Sheik Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, welcomed Mr. 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 mosque was built in 972 by the Fatimids, Shi’ite 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.

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

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 areas of Cairo.

Among the myriad security considerations if Mr. Obama speaks from the mosque are the problems posed by the thousands of shoes that must 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 thatthey 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.

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