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Pope Francis welcoming Egyptian Grand Imam of al-Azhar Mosque Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed al-Tayeb, during a private audience at the Vatican.─ AFP
Pope Francis welcoming Egyptian Grand Imam of al-Azhar Mosque Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed al-Tayeb, during a private audience at the Vatican.─ AFP

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis embraced the grand imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque at the Vatican on Monday in a historic encounter both sides hope will lead to greater understanding and dialogue between the two faiths.

The first Vatican meeting between the leader of the world's Catholics and the highest authority in Sunni Islam marks the culmination of a significant improvement in relations between the two faiths since Francis took office in 2013.

"Our meeting is the message," Francis said in a brief comment at the start of his meeting with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, shortly after he had hugged and kissed his guest, Vatican officials told a small pool of reporters covering the event.

In a statement on the trip, Al-Azhar, an institution that also comprises a prestigious seat of learning, said the two sides had agreed to convene a "peace conference".

A statement quoted Tayeb as telling Francis: "We need to take a joint stance, hand in hand, to bring happiness to humanity. Divine religions were revealed to make people happy, not to cause them hardship."

The imam's deputy, Abbas Shuman, told Egyptian TV channel CBC that the two leaders had agreed to resume dialogue and that the proposed conference would cover the issues of poverty, extremism and terrorism.

Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib, left, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque, exchange gifts with Pope Francis during a private audience in the Apostolic Palace, at the Vatican.─AP
Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib, left, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque, exchange gifts with Pope Francis during a private audience in the Apostolic Palace, at the Vatican.─AP

The Vatican did not immediately confirm the conference plans. A spokesman said the talks had been "very cordial" with the imam spending 30 minutes with the pope and just over an hour in total at St Peter's.

Pope John-Paul II met the then-grand imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo in 2000, a year before the September 11 attacks on New York transformed relations between the West and the Islamic world.

Monday's visit was effectively the long-delayed reciprocal meeting and the Vatican said that both clerics had "underlined the great significance of this new meeting".

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said in a statement that the pope and the imam had "mainly addressed the common challenges faced by the authorities and faithful of the major religions of the world."

These included working together for world peace, rejecting violence and terrorism, and the situation and protection of Christians against a backdrop of conflict and terrorism in the Middle East."

Promoting 'true Islam'

The pope presented the imam with a copy of his recent encyclical, Laudato Si', a letter to the faithful in which he urges the world to wake up to the threat posed by climate change and economic inequality.

Tayeb decided to accept the invitation to Rome as a result of the numerous conciliatory gestures Francis has made to the Muslim world since being elected in early 2013.

"If it were not for these good positions the meeting would not be happening," Shuman told AFP on Sunday, adding that the imam wanted to promote "true Islam and to correct misunderstandings created by extremist terrorist groups."

Pope Francis meets Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb (R), Egyptian Imam of al-Azhar Mosque, at the Vatican.─Reuters
Pope Francis meets Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb (R), Egyptian Imam of al-Azhar Mosque, at the Vatican.─Reuters

"He encourages countries not to deal with their Muslim citizens as groups that present a threat," Shuman said.

"And he encourages Muslims in Western society to meld with their societies... it is a message for both sides."

The Argentinian pontiff pushed various inter-faith initiatives and he was accompanied by both Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Islamic studies professor Omar Abboud when he visited Jordan and Israel in 2014.

But perhaps the gesture that clinched the deal was the most dramatic piece of political theatre of his papacy: his April visit to the migrant crisis island of Lesbos which concluded with him bringing three Syrian Muslim families back to the Vatican.


Comments (5) Closed



Speaksense May 24, 2016 01:44am

They know that time has come for change.

KHK May 24, 2016 02:28am

Good news.

Salman May 24, 2016 02:57am

A landmark auspicious sign for the humanity.

Bin Adam May 24, 2016 08:44am

Pope Francis is true follower of the teachings of our most beloved Jesus Christ and the greatest religious leader of present age who is equally revered by the humanists world of all religions and race. Jesus Christ's message of unconditional love, mercy and forgiveness as envisaged in the following verses of Holy Bible are being practically demonstrated by great Pope.
Holy Bible:Matthew:5:43-48: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbors and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Muzammil May 24, 2016 01:56pm

Pope is really nice and promoting peace in the society. Definitely relgion should only remain to promote peace and happiness