After teacher beheading in France, Azhar Imam says insulting religions incites hatred

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The grand imam of Al-Azhar condemned the beheading of a French teacher but said insulting religions in the name of free speech was an "invitation to hatred," in a speech read out on Tuesday.

The address written by Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb of Egypt's prestigious Sunni Islamic institution was read out in Rome's Capitol Square in front of a gathering of Christian, Jewish and Buddhist leaders including Pope Francis and France's Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia.

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They had come together to sign a joint call for peace.

"As a Muslim and the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, I declare that Islam, its teachings and its Prophet are innocent of this wicked terrorist crime," Tayeb said in his speech, referring to the beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty on Friday.

"At the same time, I emphasize that insulting religions and attacking their sacred symbols under the banner of freedom of expression is an intellectual double standard and an open invitation to hatred."

Paty, 47, was attacked and killed by an 18-year-old Chechen on his way home from the junior high school where he taught in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, near Paris.

He had shown his pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, infuriating one father who led an online campaign against the teacher and was in contact with the killer in the lead-up to the crime, an investigation revealed.

The killer, Abdullakh Anzorov, posted images of the decapitated body on Twitter before he was shot dead by police.

"This terrorist doesn't speak for the religion of the Prophet Mohammed any more than the terrorist in New Zealand who killed Muslims in the mosque spoke for the religion of Jesus," Tayeb said in his speech.

Police have arrested 16 people, including a known "Islamist radical" and four members of Anzorov's family.

On Monday, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the radical and the father had in effect issued a "fatwa" against the teacher.

Al-Azhar, one of the world's leading Islamic seats of learning, had in September condemned French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo's decision to reprint cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, as a trial opened over the 2015 terror attack on its Paris office.

In February 2019, Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb signed a document on "human fraternity for world peace" condemning religious extremism and support to terrorists.

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