ROME— Pope Francis, the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, welcomed this Monday in the Vatican Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, Egypt, generally considered the highest authority in the roughly 1.3 billion-strong Sunni Muslim world.
The encounter marked the resumption of a dialogue between al-Azhar and the Vatican after a five-year suspension.
“The meeting is the message,” the pope said upon encountering the imam for the first time.
As is customary during these private audiences, Francis gifted el-Tayeb with a medallion portraying the olive of peace and copies of his environmental encyclical Laudato Si’. Those present at the meeting described Francis as cheerful, while the imam had a more somber look.
The two leaders parted ways with an embrace and a double kiss.
According to a press statement from the Vatican, the both noted the “great significance” of this meeting in the framework of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam.
“[They] spoke mostly about the issue of the common commitment of the authorities and faithful of great religions for peace in the world, the rejection of violence and terrorism, the situation of Christians in the context of conflicts and tensions in the Middle East and their protection,” the Vatican said of the meeting, which lasted 25 minutes and took place in the pope’s private library.
The relationship between the Vatican and the Cairo-based Al-Azhar, considered the most prestigious institution of Sunni Islam, was interrupted in 2011, in response to comments made by emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.
At the time, following a series of attacks against Christian churches in Alexandria, Benedict demanded more protection for Christians in Egypt, which Al-Azhar took as the pontiff meddling in the internal affairs of another country.
Although St. Pope John Paul II visited al-Azhar during a trip to Egypt in 2000 and met then-Grand Imam Mohamed Sayed Tantawy, this is the first time the leader of al-Azhar and a pope have met in the Vatican, the reason why the session is being labeled “unprecedented”.
Ahead of the meeting, Al-Azhar released a statement saying that the encounter was going to focus on coordinated efforts between the two institutions on spreading the “culture of dialogue, coexistence and peace between peoples and societies.”
Francis had sent the invitation to al-Tayeb last November, when a representative of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, French Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, went to Egypt in an attempt to revive the relations.
El-Tayeb has been imam of the al-Azhar Mosque since 2010 and rector of the university since 2003. He’s largely considered a moderate Sunni who’s worked to prevent Islamic radicalization.
In February of 2015, speaking in Mecca, the imam delivered what was perceived as a historic message, said it was “urgent” to review how Islam was being taught to avoid the proliferation of religious extremism.
Although he didn’t mention Islamic terrorist organization ISIS, al-Tayeb did condemn “terrorist groups who have chosen savage and barbaric practices.”
Francis had publicly voiced his desired to meet with the imam back in February, during an inflight press conference.
“I want to meet him,” he said. “I know that he would like it,” Francis added, saying that the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue was reaching out to the al-Azhar mosque.
“We are looking for the way, always through Cardinal Tauran because it is the path, but we will achieve it,” Francis said on his flight from Mexico to Italy.
Tauran was part of the delegation that met with al-Tayeb on Monday, and the two groups had an encounter following the meeting between the pontiff and the imam.