A photo showing Egyptian al-Azhar University Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi shaking hands with Israeli President Shimon Peres at last month's Interfaith Dialogue Conference in New York caused a storm throughout the Arab world.
In response to the harsh criticism by Arab politicians, religious leaders and columnists, the top Sunni sheikh initially claimed he did not know who Peres was and that the hand shake was simply an instinctual act.
"The hand that shook Peres' hand is tainted with the blood of Palestinians and reeks of the smell of their corpses and remains," wrote Egyptian columnist Fahmi Huwaidi.
"Saudi religious clerics did not arrive at the conference, and those who did were seen only beside the (Saudi) king, but al-Azhar's sheikh fell for it. There is a verbal tradition that says that in such a situation the hand should be washed seven times.”
Egyptian opposition MP Mustafa Bakri called for Tantawi's immediate dismissal. "It's a blow to al-Azhar's functioning and sanctity in the Arab world. This meeting was like al-Azhar's clear normalization with the Zionist enemy," Bakri said.
President Peres and Sheikh Tantawi shaking hands (Photo: GPO)
"In the past, the sheikh has insisted on meeting with rabbis, with Rabbi Lau at the top of the list, but his meeting with the Zionist president is demeaning to all Muslims."
Another opposition MP Dr. Hamdi Hassan sent an urgent letter to Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif demanding he order Tantawi to apologize to all Muslims for the "unacceptable handshake".
Iran and Hamas also condemned the incident. "Anyone shaking the hand of a mass murderer cannot serve as a preacher for a combatant movement," said Muhammad Nazal, Hamas media consultant and a member of its political bureau.
'Al-Azhar's door open to Peres'
Following the incident Tantawi's office released an announcement saying the handshake was real, but was by chance, as the sheikh did not recognize Peres, and simply shook hands with everyone that reached out to him.
In a later interview to Egyptian daily "al-Masri al-Yom" Tantawi blamed the media for presenting the picture the way they did and called them "crazy".
Contrary to Tantawi's claims, Ynet has learned that during the New York conference it was actually the sheikh who approached Peres, and knowing who he was, shook his hand and talked with him for several minutes.
Tantawi reportedly told Peres, "Preachers play a very important role in calming the situation and creating an atmosphere of peace."
A few days after the incident, in an interview to Qatari newspaper al-Arab, Tantawi changed his story and said he had met with Peres.
"The meeting with Peres was sudden. It didn't last longer than a few minutes and dealt only with greetings and no other matters.
"The conference included heads of countries and religious leaders. They all exchanged greetings and shook hands, what did they want me to do? Refuse to shake the hand of the president of a country that we have peaceful relations with?"
Tantawi added that al-Azhar's doors were open to anyone, including Peres. "If the Israeli president or prime minister wishes to visit al-Azhar, there is no reason why it shouldn't happen, as long as it would be in the interest of peace in the region and in the interest of the Palestinian matter.
"Peace opens channels of dialogue with all religions and faiths," he said, adding that he would even pay a visit to Jerusalem if security and political conditions allowed it.