CAIRO — Egypt's top Muslim cleric declared Wednesday that peaceful protests against the president are permitted, dismissing declarations by Islamist hard-liners that those behind protests planned for June 30 are heretics.
Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of the Al-Azhar mosque, said in a statement that "peaceful opposition to the legitimate leader is religiously permissible and accepted."
He said the view expressed by some backers of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi that those who rebel against a "legitimate" leader are "kuffar," or non-believers, and "hypocrites" — and thus punishable by death — is a "deviant" view.
Cairo's Al-Azhar is the Sunni Muslim world's foremost seat of learning. The views of its imam are taken seriously and widely interpreted to be the moderate voice of Islam.
Morsi's opponents are planning mass protests on June 30 calling on him to step down a year after he narrowly won the presidency in a run-off against the last prime minister to serve under his ousted predecessor Hosni Mubarak.
Morsi has said that while he has nothing but respect for the "honorable" protesters, he accused Mubarak loyalists of being behind the planned demonstrations and vowed to deal with them decisively.
El-Tayeb's statement, posted on Al-Azhar's official website, came one day after he and the patriarch of Egypt's Coptic Christians, Pope Tawadros II, met Morsi. The timing of the meeting suggested that Morsi wanted the public backing of the two religious leaders ahead of the June 30 protests. An official statement issued by Morsi's office appeared to back this interpretation.
Morsi, it said, "expressed his appreciation ... to how they can contribute to bolstering national unity and maintaining the nation's supreme interests, along with safeguarding the nation's security and stability." The meeting also dealt with "current conditions and challenges facing the nation," the statement said.
Morsi supporters earlier this year stormed el-Tayeb's office to protest an outbreak of food poisoning in a dormitory belonging to Al-Azhar University. The rare protest led to speculations that Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood wanted to remove el-Tayeb and replace him with a loyal cleric. The Brotherhood denied that.
Relations between Tawadros and Morsi have not been smooth. The pope accused Morsi of doing nothing when his patriarchal seat, the Cathedral of St. Mark in Cairo, came under attack by rocks and firebombs in April, while security forces looked on.
Wednesday's statement by el-Tayeb pointed to the gap between the cleric and Morsi's allies at a time when much of the country is seething with anger and frustration over the perceived failure of the Egyptian leader to effectively tackle any of the country's pressing problems, including surging crime, high unemployment, electricity outages, fuel shortages and rising prices.
"Al-Azhar ... has found itself in a position where it had to comment on what is published of comments and fatwas (religious edicts) attributed to random arrivals in the field of edicts and jurisprudence," said the statement, indicating ridicule of Morsi backers who issued fatwas declaring that the organizers of the June 30 protesters are infidels who should be killed.
"While calling for conciliation and warning against sedition and violence, the honorable Al-Azhar also warns against declaring opponents non-believers and questioning their faith," the statement said.