Egypt's Top Sunni Cleric Dies; Church Leaders Pay Respect

The head of the largest ecumenical body in the world sent condolences this week after receiving news that Egypt's top Sunni Islam cleric had died after suffering a heart attack.

"It is with great sadness that we received the news of the passing away of Sheikh Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar mosque and head of the al-Azhar University," wrote the Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, in a letter Thursday.

Tveit, on behalf of WCC members, expressed the "most sincere condolences" to the al-Azhar mosque and university and to the Arab and Muslim world. He said Sheikh Tantawi will be remembered with "great respect and appreciation" for his Islamic scholarship and for his "prominent role and genuine commitment" to intercultural and interfaith dialogue.

Tantawi died on Wednesday at the age of 81 while visiting Saudi Arabia. He was the grand sheikh of Cairo's al-Azhar, the chief theological center of Sunni Islam in the world. Tantawi is credited with promoting women's rights, including siding with France on banning the hijab head covering in state schools, and opposing female circumcision, calling it un-Islamic.

He is generally considered a moderate scholar.

Last year during a controversy sparked by a Muslim council's fatwa that stated the building of a church is "a sin against God," Tantawi took the opposing view and said "sharia does not prevent Muslims from donating to the building of a church, as it is his free money." He also went on to say sharia law does not interfere with other faiths "because religion, faith and what a person believes in is a relationship between him and his God."

There was backlash from the Muslim community after Tantawi's statements were publicized and he revoked the statements less than 24 hours later and said the delegation had misunderstood him, even though everything he said was recorded and sent to media outlets and uploaded on Coptic advocacy websites.

Pope Benedict XVI also sent condolences to the al-Azhar community and the Tantawi family. The pope recalled Tantawi as a "valued partner" in the dialogue between Muslims and Catholics. Meanwhile, Cardinal Jean-Louis Touran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, on Wednesday described Tantawi to Vatican Radio as "a man of peace [and] dialogue."

Touran also added that he was "very impressed by his profound humanity."

In addition to Tantawi's stance on Muslim women's head coverings, he is also known for his positions against Islamic extremists and terrorism as well as for approving laws that opened the door for women to hold high-level government positions.