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Obama White House mourns death of major Muslim cleric Mohammed Sayed Tantawi

March 10, 2010 |  2:44 pm

Sheik Mohamed Sayed Tantawi

Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi of Egypt died this week during an official visit to Saudi Arabia, apparently of a heart attack.

Egypt's chief religious official, appointed by President Hosni Mubarak, was 81.

The death and White House statement comes as Vice President Joe Biden was on an important Middle Eastern trip designed to patch up souring relations with Israel in this midterm election year.

White House acknowledgment of his death came this afternoon in a statement by Press Secy. Robert Gibbs:

We express our deepest condolences on the passing of Egyptian cleric Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi

As the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar University, he was a voice for faith and tolerance who was widely respected in Muslim communities in Egypt and around the globe, and by many who seek to build a world grounded in mutual respect. Sheikh Tantawi graciously hosted President Obama last June in Cairo, and we remember well his hospitality.

Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who mourn him on this day.

In the current Muslim world Sheikh Tantawi was seen as a moderate, working with the government of the largest Arab country against the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism.

He drew criticism from those fundamentalists recently for his efforts against veiling women at his 1,000-year-old university. And in 2008 Sheikh Tanyawi got in religious hot water during a New York visit for shaking the hand of Israeli leader Shimon Peres

The cleric later claimed he did not know who he shook hands with.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Associated Press

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