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Forum 2000: Zefzaf Voices Islamic Opinions

Prague, 16 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Czech President Vaclav Havel's second Forum 2000 conference, which ended Wednesday (Oct. 14), was described by Havel and others as an international assembly of intellectuals, government officials and spiritual leaders across the spectrum of the world's beliefs and cultures.

Voices promoting the virtues of Western democracy, market economics, the European Union, the rule of law and international human rights predominated at the conference. Faintly heard among the voices was that of Fawzy Fadel El Zefzaf, president of the Al Azhar Permanent Committee of Dialogue Among Scriptural Religions.

Al Azhar University, located in Cairo, was founded more than a thousand years ago, and is widely regarded as the world's foremost center of Sunni Islamic thought and scholarship. Zefzaf appeared at the forum in the Prague Castle as a principal Islamic voice.

In the midst of a parade of speakers like U.S. statesman Henry Kissinger, French political scientist Jacques Rupnik, U.S. First Lady Hillary Clinton, European Union Commissioner Han van den Broek, and Czech-Canadian businessman Tomas Bata, the Islamic scholar from Al Azhar marched to a different drummer.

Zefzaf took note in his speech that every civilized country in the West advocates freedom, applies laws of equality and guards human dignity.

But he said that, historically, the actions of Western nations beyond their own borders often fell astonishingly short of their words at home. In Zefzaf's words:

"Outside their countries, (Western nations) applied imperialism and used it as an instrument of exploitation, subjugation and looting of wealth. And they used weapons of destruction against peace-loving nations whom they deprived of their riches and cast into ignorance, poverty and backwardness."

Only by their own revolts against what Zefzaf called "imperialism and colonialism," fueled by their own desire for independence, did subjugated countries achieve autonomy, he said. Zefzaf said that the conduct of Western nations has improved in the last half of this century, but he said it still falls below the ideals they express.

Zefzaf specifically cited the United Nations, which he said is structured to favor strong nations over weak ones.

The Islamic scholar spoke out for celebrating diversity among world religions and avoiding fanaticism. He said that religious fundamentalism, viewed positively, would mean that each believer complied with and cherished the commandments of his own religion.

Zefzaf deplored, in his words, "waging war against a religion in which one does not believe." That would be, in his phrase, "only despicable bickering and quarreling."

Religious fanatics should apply their zeal, he said, to missionary work among what he called "materialists and heathen who do not believe in any religion." This, Zefzaf said, would benefit mankind.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Zefzaf recalled that last May he signed with Roman Catholic Pope John Paul an agreement condemning both terrorism and fanaticism in religion. He said that people who bring fanaticism to religion should not be regarded as religious at all, but as common criminals.