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A group of prominent clerics has announced the launch of a new satellite channel in Egypt that will promote the face of what it calls moderate Islam, in order to counter the "distortion of Islam into a violent, intolerant force."
The non-governmental channel, Al-Azhari, is the brainchild of clerics associated with Al-Azhar University, considered the highest authority of religious teachings in Sunni Islam.
The announcement comes days before United States President Barack Obama arrives in Egypt, where he will address the Muslim world. Many believe the speech will mark a milestone in improving relations between the US and the Muslim and Arab worlds.
The 24-hour entertainment and education channel is expected to be launched during the month of Ramadan, which begins this year in mid-August.
Observant Muslims fast during the day throughout this month and traditionally spend the evenings with families eating a meal to break the fast. Over the past few years, Ramadan has become the primary season for launching new television series and programs.
Viewer ratings usually soar in the evenings as Muslims sit in their living rooms during or after the meal and watch television with the family.
The channel will air on both ArabSat and NileSat, the main satellite carriers in the Middle East, making it available to Muslim and non-Muslim viewers throughout the Middle East and beyond, extending to Europe and South-East Asia.
The channel will feature cartoons for children, Islamic soap operas, lectures and call-in shows, which will all carry messages of tolerance and moderation. It will initially broadcast in Arabic and English, with a view to later expanding to programs that will include Hindi and Turkish.
Prof. Hussein Amin, chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo and an expert on Arab satellite channels, said the channel was a good way to confront confusing and sometimes-hateful messages aired on satellite channels. Al-Azhar, he said, was recognized as a reliable religious authority and promoted a moderate school of thought in its preaching to the public.
"Fatwas [religious decrees] are coming from different directions and from people who are not qualified or do not have the knowledge or the experience to tell the people about things regarding their religion, and this is creating chaos," Amin told The Media Line.
Many of these fatwas are issued by those whom he calls "satellite sheikhs," who did not study religion in respectable institutions, have no worldly experience or knowledge and no contact with people of different religions.
Their rulings have a significant impact on youngsters, especially if they have a poor economic status, he said.
"I think once we have Al-Azhar channel, it will play a significant role as a station carrying some messages from Al-Azhar with selected references," he said.
"I think it will make some impact with regard to the enormous number of satellite stations that are creating a lot of confusion at this time in the Muslim world."
The initial start-up budget of the channel is the equivalent of $2.7 million, which is expected to increase through private donations.
The seed money was provided by a Libyan businessman, Hassan Tatanaki, who supports the channel's mission.
Al-Azhari officials hope the channel will become financially self-sustaining through advertising revenues in the coming years.
Al-Azhar University has endorsed the channel and all the presenters and experts on the channels are required to hold degrees from the prestigious institution.
An official at the channel said that, "In the Age of Obama, we realized it was time to look at new ways to deliver our message," according to a promotional statement.
The channel is launched by Muslims who believe the religion has been hijacked and distorted, turning it into a tool of division, rather than tolerance.
"This channel is our effort to take Islam back," the official said.
The objectives of the channel, according to its website (http://azhari.tv/), are to amplify the messages of Al-Azhar in calling people to God; to provide Muslims with a scientific and Muslim authority; to confront ideological thoughts and teachings that are extreme; to unify and regulate fatwas; and to reinvigorate Islamic teachings.
The channel also declares it will not get involved in state policies and will not attack any individuals or institutions.