CAIRO, Egypt — A summit for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation opened here on Wednesday, the first to be held in Cairo since the group's formation in 1969. The event is especially important for Egypt's embattled President Mohamed Morsi, a former member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood who is seeking to downplay protests against his heavy handed rule at home.
Twenty-six of the world's Muslim heads of state are attending, according to Al Jazeera, including Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the first Iranian president to visit Egypt in more than 30 years.
Wednesday's opening speeches touched on conflicts in Mali and Syria, violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Syria is expected to dominate the meeting, which brings together the Gulf states that oppose President Bashar al-Assad, and Iran, his closest regional ally. (A protester who threw a shoe at Ahmadinejad after his arrival in Cairo on Tuesday was reportedly Syrian.)
Faring poorly at home, where he faces continued unrest, Morsi sought to burnish his foreign policy credentials at the summit, highlighting Egypt’s role as a strong Muslim nation in the heart of the Arab world.
In his speech in front of the 57-member organization, Egypt's first democratically elected leader took the opportunity to voice support for Muslim rights from the West to Burma and Mail. He praised the quest for an independent Palestinian state, threw his weight behind the Syrian opposition, emphasized Egypt’s respect for Mali’s territorial sovereignty in the wake of a French military intervention there.
He said he “sees no place” for Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, in any Syrian political transition. He also denounced the international community for failing to halt “settlement activity” in Palestine, but referred to neither “Israel”, “Zionists” or “Jews” in his speech, after he came under fire last months for anti-Semitic remarks he made before he was president.
In further comments that drew the ire of some secular and anti-Morsi activists in Egypt, the Egyptian leader denounced sectarianism and called on Western nations to treat better their Muslim minorities. Morsi faces controversy at home for his support for a constitution written without the Coptic Church, whose members suffer discrimination and vigilante attacks on a regular basis.
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According to a draft resolution obtained by Agence France-Presse, the OIC will call for "serious dialogue" between the Syrian opposition and members of the regime "not directly involved in oppression."
Meanwhile, Iran will present its own proposals for resolving the conflict, the chairman of the Iranian parliament's foreign policy committee, Alaeddin Boroujerd, told Tehran's Press TV.
According to the state-owned network, Iran's six-point plan calls for an immediate ceasefire, humanitarian aid, and end to all sanctions on Syria and a "national reconciliation committee" bringing together government and rebels.
In an awkward moment at the summit, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas mixed up Morsi's name with his ousted predecessor Hosni Mubarak, the Associated Press reported.
Intending to thank Egypt for supporting the Palestinian cause, he began saying "President Mohammed Hosni" before correcting himself. Morsi appeared displeased.
OIC members will also discuss economic cooperation, extremism and Islamophobia, AFP said.
The summit convenes until Thursday.
Erin Cunningham contributed reporting from Cairo.