05/23/2016, 12.47
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Meeting between Pope Francis and the Imam of Al Azhar "for dialogue and peace in the world"

by Bernardo Cervellera

Egyptian Catholic Church spokesman: "Happy for this meeting." Vicar of Al Azhar: "A message of tolerance." The highs and lows of the Al Azhar-Vatican relationship. The breakthrough with Al Sisi and his project to modernize Egypt and the teaching of Islam.


Vatican City (AsiaNews) - "The meeting today between Pope Francis and the imam of Al Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb (see picture 1) is very important in the resumption of dialogue between Christians and Muslims and to work for understanding and world peace”, says Fr. Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Egyptian Catholic Church commenting to AsiaNews on today’s historic meeting between the Pope and the spiritual leader of Al Azhar University, the most important Sunni Muslim body in the world.

"We Egyptian Christians are happy for this meeting, - continues Fr. Greiche – it was long overdue".

The same positive outlook is expressed by the deputy imam of Al Azhar Abbas Shuman. In an interview with AFP, he emphasized the value of this meeting between the head of the Catholic Church and the highest representative of the most prestigious Sunni institution.

He stressed that Sheikh al-Tayeb’s message is a "message of tolerance", which will help to clarify the image of "true Islam and correct the misunderstandings created by terrorists and extremist groups."

Abbas Shuman noted that the meeting today is due to the improvement of relations between the Vatican and Al Azhar following the election of Pope Francis in March 2013 and with the exchange of personal letters between the two leaders.

Previously the relationship between the Vatican and Al-Azhar had been marked by tension and misunderstandings. In 2006, Benedict XVI gave the keynote speech at Regensburg, where he suggested Islam needed to consider its relationship with violence, which he defined as "irrational" and therefore not worthy of God and of a religious position.

Al Azhar joined the chorus of those in the Islamic world, who were offended by the equation (in essence never referred to in Benedict XVI’s speech) between Islam and violence. Unfortunately, in response to that speech by the German pope, there were incidents of violent demonstrations in different countries - Lebanon, Pakistan, Iran.

Another incident was caused in 2011, when following the attack on some Christian churches in Alexandria, Benedict XVI demanded more protection for Christians and greater peace for Egypt. Al Azhar accused the Pope of meddling in the internal affairs of another country.

The Vatican has never stopped seeking the resumption of dialogue. In 2014 an emissary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue visited Al Azhar University, but could not meet Al Tayeb, who had undergone a heart operation.

In November 2015 a representative of the Pontifical Council returned to Cairo carrying the invitation for a meeting with Pope Francis, but - according to reports at the time - the Sheikh received the letter without saying a word in response nor pausing to speak with his guest.

A sign of a change in the status quo arrived in March, when the Imam of Al Azhar gave a speech to the Bundestag in Berlin, and among other things said that "I will meet the Pope as soon as possible."

It must be said that in November 2014, the Egyptian president Abdelfattah Al Sisi met with Pope Francis (see picture no 2). Al Sisi has been attempting to modernize his nation and has long proposed a modernization of the teaching of Islam suitable to the contemporary world, building a country, Egypt, capable of bringing the different religions together on par.

According to several observers,  Al  Sisi’s dream of building an Egypt open to the rest of the world, good relations with Europe and the West, is also influencing  Al-Azhar’s style. Al Sisi’s victory and the revolution which ousted Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, has weakened the fundamentalist fringe that has always been present in the Al Azhar administration.

This allowed the Imam Tayeb to give a speech in Mecca in which he condemned the literalist interpretation of the Koran and spoke of the need to lay the foundations for a new style in the teaching of Islam. At present it is unclear how it will be implemented from those premises, but today's meeting could give a massive boost to dialogue between Islam and Christians, between Islam and the West.

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