Following widespread media reports, the Vatican confirmed on Saturday that Pope Francis will visit Egypt over the last weekend of April, focusing on a trip to the Al-Azhar university and mosque in Cairo, widely considered the most significant center of learning in the Sunni Muslim world.
The Vatican spokesman, veteran American journalist Greg Burke, confirmed the dates of the trip in a Saturday statement.
“In response to the invitation from the President of the Republic, the Bishops of the Catholic Church, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II and the Grand Imam of the Mosque of Al Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayyib, His Holiness Pope Francis will make an Apostolic trip to the Arab Republic of Egypt from 28 to 29 April 2017, visiting the city of Cairo,” Burke said.
“The program of the trip will be published shortly,” he added.
The trip builds on a budding relationship between the Vatican and Al-Azhar, as the two institutions recently entered into a partnership to combat religious violence. In February, the Vatican’s top official for inter-faith ties, French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, took part in a special seminar on the subject at Al-Azhar.
Francis will become the second pope to visit Al-Azhar, after St. John Paul II in 2000.
In 2016, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al Tayyb, visited Pope Francis in the Vatican, helping to pave the way for the pontiff’s trip. The outing will be brief, just two days.
In a recent interview with a German newspaper, Pope Francis suggested the possibility of a trip to Egypt but did not offer details regarding the date or program.
These developments mark a significant thaw in relations between the Vatican and Al-Azhar, which were strained in 2011 when Pope Benedict XVI used his New Year’s address to denounce an attack on a Coptic Christian cathedral in Alexandria that left 23 people dead.
Egyptian officials objected that the pontiff was interfering in the country’s internal affairs, and Al-Azhar, which is traditionally close to the Egyptian government, announced a suspension of its dialogue with the Vatican that lasted five years.
While in Egypt, Pope Francis is also expected to meet with Pope Tawadros, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Coptic Church, which is by far the largest Christian community in Egypt and, for that matter, in the Middle East.
In recent years, Copts have been the targets of a series of attacks by Islamic militants, and they also complain of a chronic from of second-class citizenship, including frequent neglect by police and security services, in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation.
The trip to Egypt may not be the pontiff’s last gesture of outreach to Muslims in 2017, as Francis is also expected to visit the Mosque of Rome at some point during the year.
“We’re waiting for him,” said Abdellah Redouane, director of the mosque’s cultural center, in comments to the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero.
“He’s promised us he will come,” Redouane said.
Rome’s soaring mosque was constructed during the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Initially, there was opposition to the project in some Italian quarters, but it went ahead after St. John Paul II gave his blessing. John Paul became the first pope to enter an Islamic mosque in Damascus, Syria, in 2001, but Francis would be the first pope to visit the Mosque of Rome.