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At a time when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has adopted President Shimon Peres as an alternative to Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, critics are attacking the head of Al-Azhar University for not leaving a conference on interfaith dialogue last month in Kazakhstan because Peres was taking part.

"I fail to understand what a politician is doing at a meeting of faiths," said Sheikh Abd el-Muati Bayumi, an important Islamic jurist and a member of the university's research council.

"This is especially so when the man is a Zionist whose country is raping Palestine and spilling the blood of Palestinians."

Some of Egypt's leading publicists directed their criticism at the head of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Sayed Tantawi, for not leaving with the Iranian delegate to protest the presence of the Israeli president.

Al-Azhar is considered the most important religious university in the Muslim world.

Calls for Tantawi's ouster

Egyptian parliamentarians representing the Muslim Brotherhood even called for Tantawi's dismissal as university head because of this "display of normalization of ties."

But Egypt's religious affairs minister, Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, came to Tantawi's defense, saying in a newspaper interview that Tantawi did not shake Peres' hand or the hands of the rabbis at the conference.

"What can we do when a government issues an invitation to a roundtable discussion?" Zaqzouq said. "That was the way the seating arrangement was set up."

Meanwhile, the Egyptian government insists on staying within the rules of diplomatic conduct, even though Egypt's intellectuals and religious leaders refuse to allow any hint of normalization in relations with Israel - even during interfaith meetings.

This is not the first time Al-Azhar's head has been criticized for being soft on Israel.

In November last year, Tantawi was photographed shaking Peres' hand at an interfaith meeting hosted by the United Nations in New York.