Pope Francis met with the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque at the Vatican on Monday, embracing his Sunni Muslim visitor in a sign of improved ties between the two religions. According to The Times of Israel, this historic meeting is the first between the leader of the Catholic world and Sunni Islam’s highest authority to take place at the Vatican.
Relations between the church and Islam have been growing steadily warmer since Pope Francis rose to the position in 2013. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, ruffled many feathers when he was perceived to have linked Islam to violence in a 2006 speech, ironically leading to violent protests and reprisals against Christians in several countries.
Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb’s surprise meeting with Pope Francis, announced only last week, began with hugs and kisses between the two leaders. “Our meeting is the message,” Vatican officials reported Pope Francis as saying.
Tayeb’s mosque, also a center for learning, said in a statement that the two sided agreed to convene a “peace conference”. Tayeb was also quoted as telling the pope, “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.”
While the Vatican would not confirm whether such plans had been formed, a spokesperson described the meeting between the two leaders as “very cordial”, with Tayeb spending 30 minutes with Pope Francis and about an hour at St. Peter’s altogether.
The meeting between the pope and imam represents the reciprocation of a meeting held in 2000 between Pope John-Paul II and the grand imam of al-Azhar at the time, in Cairo. A long time in coming, the Vatican said 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,” including world peace, violence in the Middle East and terrorism.
During the meeting, Pope Francis presented Tayeb with a copy of his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, which calls attention to the threats of climate change and economic inequality.
Abbas Shuman, deputy to the imam, told AFP Sunday that Tayeb’s visit to Rome was the result of Pope Francis’s many conciliatory gestures.
“If it were not for these good positions the meeting would not be happening,” he said, adding the imam wishes to promote “true Islam and to correct misunderstandings created by extremist terrorist groups.
“He encourages countries not to deal with their Muslim citizens as groups that present a threat,” Shuman continued, “and he encourages Muslims in Western society to meld with their societies… it is a message for both sides.”