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Harvard to return $2.5m given by Arab president

Harvard Divinity School will give back a $2.5 million cash gift from the president of the United Arab Emirates, ending more than a year of controversy spurred by the country's support of an Arab League think tank that promoted anti-Semitic ideas.

The donation from Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, announced four years ago, was supposed to have funded an endowed professorship in Islamic religious studies to promote ''a better understanding of Islam among the non-Muslim people of the world."

But Zayed recently asked for the return of the gift, which had never been used, school officials said yesterday.

Harvard froze the donation in spring 2003, before a professor had been named, after some students raised concerns over the activities of the Abu Dhabi-based Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-up. The center was officially the think tank of the Arab League, but was funded and hosted by the United Arab Emirates and named after the president.

Yesterday Rachel Lea Fish, the former divinity student who led the protest and presented school officials with 130 pages of research about the center's activities, praised the return of the money.

''I study contemporary thought in Judaism and Islam, so I believe that there absolutely should be such a professorship at Harvard Divinity School," said Fish, who now works in New York for The David Project, a nonprofit organization that supports students who advocate for Israel. ''But the money should come from a reputable source."

Zayed ordered the shutdown of the center in August 2003, saying that it ''had engaged in a discourse that starkly contradicted the principles of interfaith tolerance."

University officials kept the gift frozen for another nine months while investigating the issue, according to a message posted on the school's website and e-mailed to students by Dean William A. Graham.

''In light of the Zayed Center's having promoted activities in evident conflict with the purposes of the gift, Harvard indicated to representatives of the donor that the University was seriously considering returning the gift funds," the e-mail states.

Divinity School officials had no further comment yesterday beyond the Internet message, a spokeswoman said. Telephone calls to the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington, D.C., were not returned.

The Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-up was established in 1999 and had hosted speeches and forums featuring a wide range of international figures, including mainstream ones such as Jimmy Carter, former vice president Al Gore and former secretary of state James Baker.

Yet it also drew harsh criticism from Jewish advocacy groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for promoting well-known anti-Semitic speakers and publishing tracts denying the Holocaust and alleging Zionist conspiracies seeking world domination.

Speakers hosted by the center included fringe political figure Lyndon Larouche and author Michael Collins Piper, who has suggested that the Mossad, the Israeli secret police, played a role in the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.

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