Pope Francis on Monday met the grand imam of Egypt’s highest Islamic authority Al-Azhar, looking to heal Vatican relations with the influential centre of Sunni Muslim learning, after dialogue was frozen five years ago.
The 1,000-year-old mosque and university centre cut contacts with the Vatican in 2011 over what it said were repeated insults towards Islam from Francis’s 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 people.
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 reporters.
In a subsequent statement, the Vatican said the two leaders 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 criticised 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 per cent 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 relationships.
The Al-Azhar university has around 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.