Prayer books strewn across the rubble of this Cairo synagogue/yeshiva (Photo: Yom al-sabeth)
The Egyptian authorities have been stung by a critical open letter issued by Egyptian Jews as president Mubarak visited Washington this week, and pictures of a derelict Jewish site appearing on weblogs such as Point of No Return. They are at pains to state that the site is not a synagogue but a yeshiva.
To show that accusations of neglect of Egypt's Jewish heritage are unfounded, they are trumpeting their plans to restore the Maimonides* synagogue. The timing is not linked, they say in this AFP report, to the culture minister Farouk Hosni's bid to head UNESCO. Hosni once said he would 'burn Israeli books.'
CAIRO — Egypt denied on Thursday that it was restoring its Jewish antiquities only to help bolster a controversial bid by Culture Minister Faruq Hosni to head UNESCO.
Antiquities chief Zahi Hawass was responding to complaints by Jewish groups after recent pictures circulating on the Internet reportedly showed religious books scattered on the floor of a synagogue.
"There have been some pictures published in newspapers and on Internet sites implying that Egypt has neglected its duties towards Jewish temples and this is not true," Hawass told reporters at the Musa bin Maymun (or Maimonides) synagogue in Cairo?s ancient Jewish Quarter.
"The pictures published are not of the synagogues and are aimed at tarnishing the image of Culture Minister Faruq Hosni, whom Egypt has put forward as a candidate to head UNESCO," Hawass said.
"Egypt deals with the Jewish synagogues and antiquities as part of its own," Hawass said.
His claims were backed up by the head of Egypt's Jewish community, Rauf Fuad Tawfiq**, who said pictures showing religious books strewn on a floor were taken in a house once used as a Jewish school and not in the Maimonides synagogue.
"The restoration of the Ibn Maymun temple began over 14 months ago, before Egypt announced the candidacy of Faruq Hosni," he added.
Hosni's candidacy for the post of director general of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has been mired in controversy amid charges of anti-Semitism after comments he made in May 2008.
"I'd burn Israeli books myself if I found any in libraries in Egypt," he said in response to a question in parliament.
He later retracted his words and apologised.
Israel initially protested but has since lifted its opposition to Hosni, who has been culture minister for more than two decades. A vote on the UNESCO job is to be held in October.
Egypt has 13 Jewish houses of worship. Some of them have already been restored, such as the Ben Ezer synagogue in Old Cairo and the Shaar Hashamayim in downtown Cairo.
Scholar, philosopher and physician Musa Ibn Maymun was born in Cordoba, Spain in 1135 and fled from persecution to Egypt, where he died in 1204.
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* referred to by his Muslim name, Musa ibn Maymun
**Jewish groups say they have not heard of this gentleman before