EGYPT – New hope of resuming dialogue between Vatican and Al-Azhar
There is renewed hope that dialogue will be relaunched between the Vatican and Egypt’s Al-Azhar University. Relations between them have been strained since 2011 when the Egyptians claimed that Pope Benedict XVI had “interfered” in Egypt’s internal affairs by condemning a bomb attack on a church in Alexandria during the time of Coptic Christmas.
Two months after the visit of one of Sunni Islam’s highest authorities to the Vatican, during which the Imam of al Azhar had a personal meeting with Pope Francis on 23 May, the Pope has now sent a representative to Egypt. Bishop Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, is currently in Egypt for an official visit to the Al-Azhar University in accordance with “the explicit wish of Pope Francis.”
Together with the Vatican’s ambassador to Egypt, Archbishop Bruno Musarò, Bishop Ayuso met two University representatives to “consider how to resume dialogue between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and Al-Azhar University.” They spoke with Dr. Kamal Abd al-Salam, member of the Al-Azhar Centre for Dialogue and Professor Mohey El-Din Afifi Ahmed, secretary of the Al-Azhar Islamic Research Complex. The group then held a second fruitful meeting with the Wakil of Al-Azhar, Dr. Abbas Shouman.
After conveying the Pope’s greetings and good wishes, Bishop Ayuso discussed the terms and methods of a further meeting to mark the resumption of dialogue between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and Al-Azhar University.
These meetings were held in an atmosphere of great cordiality. They highlighted the importance of sincere and fruitful dialogue between the Vatican and the important Sunnite institution of Al-Azhar, and of collaboration which strengthens the bonds between Christians and Muslims for the good of humanity.
The initial meeting between the Pope and the Imam in May had focused largely on the commitment of major religions to working for peace and the rejection of violence and terrorism. They also discussed the protection of Christians in the Middle East who are currently facing extreme persecution.
The Pope had made a favourable impression on the Imam who described him as “a man of peace, a man who follows the teaching of Christianity, which is a religion of love and peace.” He also said Francis was a man “who respects other religions and shows consideration for their followers.”
It is hoped that the meetings between the Vatican and will lead to increased co-operation in the fight against terrorism. Following the first meeting with the Pope, the Imam had denounced terrorism carried out by Islamic extremists, stressing that “Islam has nothing to do with this terrorism, and this applies to Ulama Muslims and to Christians and Muslims in the East.” He also stated that “Those who kill Muslims, and who also kill Christians, have misunderstood the texts of Islam either intentionally or by negligence.”
Though it is not yet certain what form and extent this interfaith co-operation will entail, it is is clear is that relations with Islam have improved in recent years. This is largely due to Pope Francis’ constant appeals for interfaith dialogue, which began shortly after his election when he sent a personal message to Muslims marking the end of the first month of Ramadan.