VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis met on Monday
the grand imam of Egypt’s highest Islamic
authority, Al-Azhar, looking to heal Vatican
relations with the influential center of Sunni
Muslim learning after dialogue was frozen five
The 1,000-year-old mosque and university
center cut contacts with the Vatican in 2011
over what it said were repeated insults toward
Islam from Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict.
The decision came just days after Benedict
denounced what he called “a strategy of
violence that has Christians as a target”
following a bomb attack outside a church in
the Egyptian city of Alexandria that killed 23
Since his election in 2013, Francis has put great
emphasis on improving inter-faith relations
and smiled warmly as he greeted Egypt’s top
cleric, Ahmed al-Tayeb.
“The message is the meeting,” the pope told
In a subsequent statement, the Vatican said the
two men had discussed the problems of
violence and terrorism, and the situation of
Christians in the Middle East, including how best
to protect them.
Pope Francis last year urged an end to what he
called a genocide against Christians in the
Middle East, but he has also said it is wrong to
equate Islam with violence.
In an interview last week, he said “the idea of
conquest is inherent to the soul of Islam” but
added that Christianity had the same
missionary goal in its “Great Commission”
where Jesus told his apostles to “go and make
disciples of all nations”.
Looking to set an example for Europe, Francis
has taken in Muslim refugees fleeing the war in
Syria. Last week he criticized Western powers
for trying to export their own brand of
democracy to the Middle East and Africa
without respecting indigenous political cultures.
Christians, mostly Orthodox Copts, account for
about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, which
is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
Sectarian violence sometimes erupts over
disputes on issues related to church building,
religious conversions and interfaith
The Al-Azhar university has some 450,000
students, many from countries across Asia and
Africa. It also has a network of more than
9,000 schools across Egypt attended by more
than 2 million students.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Tom