Cairo’s Grand Imam of Al-Azhar meets the Pope at the Vatican
The Holy See Press Office released a statement saying the meeting between Francis and the Imam of Al-Azhar, considered to be the most authoritative theological-academic institution of Sunni Islam, lasted about 30 minutes and their discussions were “very cordial.” Fr. Lombardi, the Holy See Press Office director, pointed out that such an encounter between the Pope and, who many Muslims consider to be the highest authority in Sunni Islam, “is a first.”
The two religious leaders acknowledged “the great significance of this new meeting in the framework of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam.” They also discussed “the common commitment of the authorities and the faithful of the great religions for peace in the world, the rejection of violence and terrorism, the situation of Christians in the context of conflicts and tensions in the Middle East and their protection.”
Accompanying the Imam were: Dr. Abbas Shouman, Undersecretary of Al-Azhar; Dr. Mahmaoud Hamdi Zakzouk, member of the Council of Senior Scholars of Al-Azhar University and Director of the Centre for Dialogue of Al-Azhar; Judge Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Salam, Advisor to the Great Imam; Dr. Mohie Afifi Afifi Ahmed, secretary-general of the Islamic Research Academy; Ambassador Mahmoud Abdel Gawad, Diplomatic Advisor to the Grand Imam; Tamer Tawfik, Advisor; and Ahmad Alshourbagy, Second Secretary. The delegation was accompanied by Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt to the Holy See, Hatem Seif Elnasr.
The Imam of Al-Azhar oversees Egypt’s al-Azhar Mosque and the prestigious al-Azhar University attached to it. Founded in the Fatimid dynasty in the late 10th century together with the adjoining mosque, the university is one of the most renowned study centers for the legal principals of Sunni Islam. The Egyptian university is also considered to be “the most authoritative theological-academic institution of Sunni Islam” and has often been dubbed the “Vatican” of the Islamic world.
The meeting between the Pope and the Grand Imam can be viewed as a thawing of relations between the Vatican and the al-Azhar institution. Relations between the two became strained in 2011 amid claims that Pope Benedict XVI had “interfered” in Egypt’s internal affairs by condemning a bomb attack on a church in Alexandria.
Relations between the Church and Muslims have improved under Pope Francis who sent a personal message to Muslims marking the end of the first month of Ramadan shortly after his 2013 election. Francis has also issued many appeals for interfaith dialogue.
After his historic meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican Monday, Egypt’s Grand Imam of al Azhar issued a global appeal to counter terrorism, which he said is “deviant” of true Islam and threatens the both east and west alike.
“I come from the Middle East where I live and I suffer, along with others, the consequences of the rivers of blood and cadavers, and there is no logical reason for this catastrophe that we are living day and night,” Imam Ahmed al Tayyeb told Vatican Radio in an interview published May 24.
He acknowledged that terrorism exists, but stressed that “Islam has nothing to do with this terrorism, and this applies to Ulama Muslims and to Christians and Muslims in the East.”
“Those who kill Muslims, and who also kill Christians, have misunderstood the texts of Islam either intentionally or by negligence.”
Al Tayyeb issued a global appeal asking that the entire world to “close ranks to confront and put an end to terrorism.” If the growing problem of terrorism is neglected, it’s not just the east that will pay the price, but “both east and west could suffer together, as we have seen.”
When it comes to terrorism in the Middle East, the imam advised that the issue ought not to be presented only as a persecution of Christians because “there are more Muslim than Christian victims, and we all suffer this catastrophe together.”
“Therefore this is my appeal to the world and to the free men of the world: to come to an agreement immediately and to intervene to put an end to these rivers of blood,” he said, and cautioned against generalizing an entire religion in light of a deviant few.
“We must not blame religions because of the deviations of some of their followers, because in every religion there exists a deviant faction that raises the flag of religion to kill in its name.”
The imam’s interview, conducted in Arabic, came after he met Pope Francis during an official visit to the Vatican Monday, May 23, marking seismic leap in Catholic-Muslim relations.