Lebanese ayatollah rebukes Egypt’s top cleric for comments on head scarves

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) — Lebanon’s top Muslim Shiite cleric has rebuked a top Muslim Sunni authority for supporting France’s proposed ban on head scarves in schools.

Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah said the grand sheik of Al-Azhar in Cairo should apologize to Muslims for saying that French Muslim school girls should respect the proposed ban on head scarves.

“Sheik Al-Azhar harmed Islam and Muslims when he gave the French government a credible Islamic justification for its decision … He is required to apologize to Muslims,” Fadlallah said Friday. The comments were faxed to The Associated Press on Saturday.

French President Jacques Chirac has asked parliament to ban the wearing of head scarves and other conspicuous religious symbols, such as Jewish skullcaps and large crosses, in schools to protect the country’s secularism.

Chirac’s proposal drew criticism and protests from numerous Muslim countries. But the grand sheik of Al-Azhar, Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, said earlier this week that “if a Muslim woman lives in a country where laws do not permit (the head scarf), then she has to comply with those laws.”

“Muslims do not allow others to interfere in their affairs, so they should not interfere in others’ affairs,” Tantawi said after a meeting with French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Al-Azhar is the most prestigious theological institute in the main Sunni sect of the Muslim world. But the comments of Tantawi, a moderate cleric, were criticized by Egypt’s mufti, who issues religious edicts, and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamic group.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, however, rallied to Tantawi’s side, saying that to oppose the French ban was pointless.

Fadlallah enjoys wide respect among Shiites in the Arab world and is the top religious authority for Lebanon’s 1.2 million Shiites.

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