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Harvard delays decision on gift from sheikh

Harvard University officials said yesterday they will freeze a $2.5 million donation from the president of the United Arab Emirates for a year while they sort out questions about his activities.

The gift from Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, to establish a professorship in Islamic studies at Harvard Divinity School, was called into question last spring by students who criticized Sheikh Zayed's apparent ties to the Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-up, an Arab think tank.

Sheikh Zayed closed the center, which had been accused of anti-Semitic and anti-American activities, earlier this month because it "had engaged in a discourse that starkly contradicted the principles of interfaith tolerance," according to a statement issued by his office to the Associated Press.

Harvard officials responded yesterday by postponing a decision on what to do with the money.

"The United Arab Emirates has now announced Sheikh Zayed's directive to close the center, citing activities inconsistent with the values the Sheikh has professed," said a Harvard statement yesterday. "We applaud this decision. In view of the evolving situation, Harvard has decided to put the gift on hold during the coming academic year."

The Divinity School will continue to seek the appointment of an Islamic studies professor, the statement said.

Rachel Fish, the Divinity School graduate who started a petition last spring asking Harvard to give back the money, could not be reached yesterday. But in a statement earlier this month, she said that students' objections to the Harvard gift go beyond the Zayed Center to the sheikh's other philanthropies and to his human-rights record.

"We are going to keep up the pressure," Fish said in the earlier statement. "This campaign is not over."

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com

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