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Egypt's Grand Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, considered the most senior institutional religious authority in Egypt, announced Tuesday that he had shaken the hand of Israel's President, Shimon Peres, at a conference several weeks ago, because he did not recognize him and did not know who he was.

The handshake, which took place at a United Nations-hosted interfaith meeting in New York last month, sparked harsh criticism among the Egyptian opposition, who went as far as to demand Tantawi's resignation.

The two men met at a small dinner for world leaders, attended by the Saudi king, the emir of Kuwait and other Arab leaders. It was the first time that Israeli and Saudi leaders were present at the same public event.

At the conference, Tantawi was the first leader to approach Peres and engage in conversation with him. The two men spoke for several minutes without releasing their handshake for the duration of the conversation.

Peres' office declined to comment on the incident.

Tantawi told the independent Egyptian paper Al Masri al Youm that "I shook the hand of anyone who held out his hand. Among those was Shimon Peres, whom I did not recognize, so I shook his hand like I did the others, at random without even knowing him... And if I had known who it was, would the handshake amount to heresy?"

Tantawi condemned anyone who publicized the picture of him shaking hands with Peres, saying it had been a "group of lunatics."

Those who criticized Tantawi were affiliated with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups who oppose maintaining relations with Israel as well as normalization with Israel.

Egyptian Parliament member Moustafa Bakri asked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Monday to dismiss Tantawi, saying that his meeting with Peres was "an affront to all Muslims everywhere."