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General view of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, April 17, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

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CAIRO (Reuters) - The head of Egypt's Al-Azhar university, the 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning, has been replaced after describing a leading Islamic researcher as an apostate, official media reports said on Saturday.

Al-Azhar said its Grand Imam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, had named Mohamed Hussein al-Mahrsawy, dean of the Arabic language faculty, as the university's acting president following the resignation of Ahmed Hosny and pending the appointment of a permanent successor.

The ahramonline news site said Hosny had quit after being criticised for describing researcher Islam El-Behery, known for controversial interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence, as an apostate.

The shake-up comes as the university, one of the most prominent Sunni academic institutions, faces criticism from Egypt's parliament and sections of the media, who say its clerics have resisted pressure to modernise their religious discourse to help the fight against extremism.

Al-Azhar last month played host to Pope Francis, who visited Cairo to improve relations between Catholics and Muslims.

(Reporting by Ali Abdelatti; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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