Pope Francis on Monday embraced the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the highest seat of Sunni Muslim center of learning, in a sign that a five-year suspension of important Catholic-Muslim ties was over.
As Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb arrived for his audience in the Apostolic Palace, Francis said that the fact that they were meeting at all was significant.
“The meeting is the message,” Francis told the imam.
The two men spoke privately for 25 minutes in the pope’s private library, bidding each other farewell with an embrace. El-Tayeb and his delegation then had talks with the Vatican cardinal in charge of interreligious dialogue.
The unprecedented historic visit between the two religious leaders came after the Cairo-based Al-Azhar had frozen talks with the Vatican to protest comments by then-Pope Benedict XVI.
The last visit between the two institutions took place in March 2014 when a representative of the Al-Azhar Mosque, Mahmoud Azab, took part in an inter-faith conference at the Vatican aimed at promoting cooperation on combating modern slavery and human trafficking.
However, relations have steadily improved since Francis became pope in 2013 with inter-faith dialogue near the top of his agenda.
He underlined this improvement in ties with a personal message to the Muslim world to mark the end of the first month of Ramadan during his pontificate.
Tayeb’s visit aims at spreading the culture of dialogue, coexistence and peace between people in addition to setting straight the image of “true Islam and to correct misunderstandings created by extremist terrorist groups” in Western countries, Abbas Shuman, deputy to grand imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, said on Sunday.
El- Tayeb “encourages countries not to deal with their Muslim citizens as groups that present a threat,” Shuman said.
“And he encourages Muslims in Western society to meld with their societies… it is a message for both sides.”
After the audience, el-Tayeb travels to Paris to open a Muslim-Catholic conference on East-West relations.