Published: Thursday 31 July 1997

Recently, a prominent religious leader in Egypt announced the willingness to donate his organs to needy patients after his death. In Egypt, where organ transplants were long been prevented, the gesture came as a shock and opened up a floodgate of debate.

The announcement was made by the Grand Sheik of Al Azhar -- a centre for Sunni teachings -- Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, a cleric whose following extends across the Islamic world. His statement was featured in the front pages of the country's official newspapers. Following his announcement, dozens of eminent Egyptians suddenly declared their willingness to donate their organs.

Until Tantawi spoke out, the most prominent voice on the issue had been that of a popular cleric, Sheik Mohammed Metwali al-Sharawi. Sheik Sharawi argued that a human being should neither surrender nor replace any part of his or her body because it is a gift from God. But the declaration by the Grand Sheik that transplants are indeed permissible, issued along with religious edicts by two separate committees, has set Al Azhar squarely on the side of the secularists of the country.

Prior to this, in response to the concerns of doctors troubled by a shortage of available organs that forced patients to seek them abroad, the Egyptian government had already asked Parliament to draft a law to spell out for the first time the circumstances in which organ transplants will be permitted.

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