VATICAN CITY — The Vatican and Egypt’s prestigious Sunni Muslim center of learning, Al-Azhar, are expected to formally reopen talks next year after a five-year lull.
Officials from the Vatican’s office of interreligious affairs are going to Cairo this weekend for a preparatory meeting to lay the groundwork for the official restart of talks, scheduled for late April in Rome.
The resumption comes as Egypt is pressing its fight against Islamic militancy both at home and across the Middle East, a decision that has brought it closer to Syrian President Bashar Assad, Russia and Iran, in turn antagonizing its chief financial backer, Saudi Arabia.
The Vatican announcement Friday comes after Pope Francis and the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib, met at the Vatican in May and embraced. It marked a turning point after Al-Azhar froze talks with the Vatican in 2011 to protest comments by then-Pope Benedict XVI.
Benedict had demanded greater protection for Christians in Egypt after a New Year’s bombing of a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria killed 21 people.
Under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt has made fighting Islamic militants its overriding foreign policy objective. Saudi Arabia, which has helped keep Egypt’s economy from collapse with billions in aid, has already signaled its displeasure by holding back promised supplies of fuel.
This direction of Egyptian foreign policy is rooted in the military’s 2013 ouster of Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Cairo’s single-minded pursuit of the Brotherhood — and of any Islamist group that bears the slightest resemblance to the Brotherhood — has become the guiding principle of Egypt’s foreign, as well as domestic, policy,” Middle East expert Steven A. Cook wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.
Adding insult to injury, Egypt this week hosted one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s top security aides for talks, while Russian and Egyptian commandos held joint war games — at a time of widespread outrage in the Arab world over Russia’s air bombardment of Aleppo.
Saudi Arabia is seeking Assad’s ouster and has strongly backed rebel factions, including ones with hard-line Islamist ideologies.
Egypt, in contrast, sees militants in Syria as a threat. It has been far cooler to the prospect of removing Assad.
Egypt’s direction undermines Saudi Arabia’s hopes to build a Sunni axis to block the influence of its top rival, Shiite and non-Arab Iran. In fact, Cairo’s show of support for Assad put it closer to Iran, the Syrian leader’s top ally.
El-Sissi took office in elections held a year after he led the military’s 2013 ouster of Morsi, whose one-year in office sharply divided the country.
Security forces have since moved to crush the Brotherhood and other Islamists, killing hundreds and jailing thousands of others. El-Sissi has repeatedly claimed that the Brotherhood’s ideology is at the root of the world’s troubles with militancy.
El-Sissi’s direct role in fighting militants has mainly been focused on the grueling battle against the insurgency centered in Sinai. But he has backed Libyan general Khalifa Hifter in a fight against militants in Egypt’s oil-rich western neighbor.
He has also tightened Egypt’s siege of the Gaza Strip, ruled by the militant Hamas group, shutting down most of the underground tunnels into Egypt that the 2 million Gazans depended on for essential goods.
El-Sissi has also shown support for Egypt’s Christian minority, roughly ten percent of the country’s population, and in 2014 he invited Pope Francis to visit Egypt.