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Islamic activists challenge Mubarak

EGYPT'S government is facing severe embarrassment after the world's most prestigious centre for Islamic studies, Cairo's Al- Azhar University, has called for key policy changes in a UN document to be presented at the population conference to be held in Cairo next month.

The document condoned homosexual relationships and adultery and destroyed the values to which all revealed religions aspire, according to a critique from the Islamic Studies Centre.

The critique also warned that it undermined parental authority, could encourage prostitution, was a defence of sex outside marriage and easy abortion and called for changes to make it conform to Islamic principles.

Egyptian officialdom has brushed such criticisms aside, saying they would not affect the conference as planned, but none the less, they are seen as a fundamental challenge to the state.

The authorities acknowledge that they have allowed Al-Azhar University and other institutions to be infiltrated by extreme Islamist activists, in some cases supported by conservative Gulf states, while their attention was focused on combating Islam-inspired violence in the streets.

This criticism is yet another embarrassment for President Mubarak, who seeks to derive international prestige from such a conference, and who has set a personal example of family planning by having two sons only. Al- Azhar is not without its critics. Feminists accuse the university and Islamic traditionalists of opposing the population conference because it gives women the right to choose in matters of birth control.