In response to a report that the news conference held after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s meeting with Al-Azhar’s grand sheikh had been unscheduled, Al-Azhar said Wednesday that it has “only one face and one discourse, and transparency is our priority, and it is not true that the press conference came as a surprise to anyone.”
The news conference on 5 February brought together Ahmadinejad and Hassan al-Shafie, first adviser to Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, as well as other leaders from the institution. It took place on the sidelines of the Iranian official’s participation in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit held in Cairo.
During the news conference, the senior Al-Azhar cleric told Ahmadinejad that he should not seek to meddle in Gulf states’ affairs, nor attempt to spread the Shia Islam in the region. The statements, which amounted to a public scolding of the visiting leader, drew much media attention both at home and abroad — highlighting the many ideological divisions between the two unlikely bedfellows.
The Iranian news agency Fars on its Arabic-language website published what it described as previously “unpublished details on the Iranian president’s talks with Al-Azhar scholars,” which gave an account that differed from the one circulated in Egyptian media.
Fars cited Ahmed Mousavi, chairperson of the Iranian Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, as saying that Ahmadinejad was not scheduled to hold a news conference after the Iranian delegation’s meeting with Tayyeb, adding that such conferences in which the Iranian president was to take part had been scheduled in advance.
“When we finished the meeting, there was a crowd of reporters, and I stood beside the president during the press conference in case he needed some help with translation,” Mousavi said, adding that he felt the situation was not spontaneous and that some people wanted to uncover what happened during the meeting and embarrass the president.
According to London-based Asharq Al-Awsat’s Thursday issue, Al-Azhar said, “There was nothing but complete honesty and transparency, and the conference was held in that spirit, and President Ahmadinejad shook hands firmly with Hassan al-Shafie.”
Mousavi added that during the conference, Al-Azhar officials “were trying to bring up the problems between Shias and Sunnis, and the Syrian issue, prompting us to threaten to leave the press conference if controversial issues were discussed in public.”
In its response statement, Al-Azhar said the Iranian president wanted to visit the Islamic institution, and he was well-received by the grand sheikh and a group from the Al-Azhar Supreme Council of Scholars. The response said that after the meeting the Iranian president and his delegation, they were told Tayyeb does not take part in news conferences and that his senior adviser, Shafie, would be present on his behalf at the conference, which the Iranian president and his delegation did not mind at all.
“The Iranian president was disappointed by the choice of Shafie because Iran is seeking to spread Shia doctrine in Egypt,” a source from Al-Azhar said.
The source added that Ahmadinejad had a private conversation with Shafie in which the senior Al-Azhar adviser said, “We regret to continuously hear insults to the companions of [Prophet Mohamed] and Prophet Mohamed’s wives. This is altogether rejected.”
The source said Shafie also expressed rejection of Iran’s “attempts to spread Shia doctrine in Egypt,” saying Egypt is wholeheartedly Sunni.
The same source said the chief reason behind Ahmadinejad’s anger is his opposition to the statement issued by Al-Azhar and distributed to local and international media during the meeting between Tayyeb and Ahmadinejad. The statement read out by Shafie during the news conference mentioned the controversial points that Tayyeb tackled with the Iranian president during their closed meeting.
These points called for Iran not to intervene in Gulf affairs, and to respect Bahrain as a sisterly Arab country and give Sunnis in Iran their full rights. They also include stopping the bloodshed in Syria and emphasize the rejection of attempts to spread Shia belief in Sunni countries.
The source added that Ahmadinejad was angry to find so many reporters and media outlets after the meeting, adding that he expected a smaller news conference, in which he would talk about relations between Cairo and Tehran.
Ahmadinejad’s historic visit was the first by an Iranian president since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. President Mohamed Morsy’s warm reception of his Iranian counterpart led to mounting speculation across the region that a possible rapprochement is in the making after a decades-long deadlock.
Edited translation from Al-Masry Al-Youm