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Top cleric leads campaign to legalize organ transplants

May 4, 1997

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ A leading Muslim scholar has decided to donate his organs after his death, prompting a debate in Egypt over the legality _ and desirability _ of organ transplants.

The declaration by Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the grand sheik of al-Azhar, has added credibility to the government’s effort to legalize the practice, which is still banned in Egypt.

Donating organs after death is allowed in some of the strictest Muslim countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. But many Muslim scholars oppose the idea, saying human bodies are sacred and should not be violated after death.

One of Egypt’s leading clerics, Sheik Mohammed Mutwali Sharawi, even opposes transplants from living donors to someone else, a practice permitted in this predominantly Muslim country.

In a ruling published in Cairo newspapers Sunday, Tantawi provided support for organ donations, saying it was permissible in Islam under certain conditions. Among them: that the person had given permission or that the person’s family authorizes it.

His ruling also included a more controversial provision: Doctors can take organs if the family is not available to authorize it. ``Concerned authorities can permit that,″ he said.

Although not law, a ruling by the sheik of al-Azhar, one of the Muslim world’s leading institutions of religious scholarship, carries weight among Egyptians and other Muslims.

Tantawi’s decision last week to be an organ donor and his ruling were welcomed by state-owned newspapers, which support the effort to legalize the practice and find badly needed organs for thousands of patients on waiting lists across the country.

``He is a leading example,″ said Ibrahim Sada, editor in chief of Akhbar Al-Youm. ``He refuses to hold the stick in the middle, regardless of whether that will make some people angry or not.″

Well-to-do Egyptians needing transplants travel abroad when a living donor is not available or when they are in need of a vital organ.

Egyptian doctors complain they are being barred from taking part in medical advances because of the ban and deprived of lucrative fees in performing such operations.

``It is a pity that Egypt, which was a pioneer of progress among the Muslim nations, is now facing attempts to drive it backward,″ Hamdi el-Seyed, the head of the powerful Doctors Syndicate, told a meeting Thursday debating the issue.

Some doctors, however, have argued against lifting the ban.

``Transplant is wrong and we cannot exclude the religious argument because the constitution says that Egypt is an Islamic state,″ said Safawat Hassan Lutfi, an anesthesiologist.

On Sunday, the Egyptian parliament began discussions on a draft bill proposed by the government to permit such transplants. It could take days for the bill to reach the floor.

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