On Monday, Pope Francis will host Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar and considered to be the highest authority in Sunni Islam. This meeting puts the world’s 2.2 billion Catholics and 1.7 billion Sunni Muslims at the same table to discuss mutual interests for the first time.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told AFP on Thursday, “This audience is being prepared and has been scheduled for Monday. It will be a first.”
The upcoming meeting at the Vatican is the result of several months of delicate negotiations. In February, Bishop Miguel Àngel Ayuso Guixot, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the apostolic nuncio in Egypt, Archbishop Bruno Musarò, visited the al-Azhar Mosque and University.
During their visit, Bishop Ayuso gave Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, a letter expressing his willingness to meet with the Grand Imam and to accompany him for an official audience with the Pope. These moves will culminate in Monday’s meeting.
Relations between the Vatican and Sunni Islam were shattered in 2006 when Pope Benedict XVI made a speech in which he linked Islam to terror attacks. His remarks generated anger in the Islamic world, which responded with deadly protests in several countries and reprisal attacks on Christians.
Dialog between the two faiths officially resumed in 2009 but were again suspended in 2011 after a bomb attack on a church in Alexandria during the time of Coptic Christmas. Pope Benedict XVI called for “effective measures for the protection of religious minorities”. The Egyptian government claimed was interfering with Egypt’s domestic politics and recalled their ambassador to the Vatican.
Relations between the Islam and Catholicism have improved since Benedict stepped down in 2013 and Pope Francis was inaugurated. One month after his election, Pope Francis sent a personal message to Muslims marking the end of the first month of Ramadan.
A representative of the Al-Azhar mosque, Mahmoud Azab, took part in an inter-faith conference at the Vatican in March 2014, The conference was to combat human trafficking and slavery.
Pope Francis garnered high praise in the Muslim world in April when he returned from a trip to the Greek island of Lesbos with three randomly chosen Syrian Muslim families who are now being put up by the Vatican as they apply for asylum in Italy. This act also attracted criticism from many Christians who feel the leader of the Catholic world should have helped some of the many Christian refugees on the island instead.
The Pope’s efforts at making peace with Islam have occasionally come at the cost of his relations with the West. In an interview this week to the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, he compared Islamic Jihad to Christian missionaries.
“It is true that the idea of conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam,” he said in the interview. “However, it is also possible to interpret the objective in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus sends his disciples to all nations, in terms of the same idea of conquest.”
In the interview, he blamed Western powers for Islamic extremism.
“In the face of Islamic terrorism, it would be better to question ourselves about the way in an overly Western model of democracy has been exported to countries such as Iraq, where a strong government previously existed,” he noted. “Or in Libya, where a tribal structure exists. We cannot advance without taking these cultures into account.”
He also encouraged Western countries to accept more Muslim immigrants as a means of offsetting falling birth-rates.