“The meeting is the message,” Pope Francis said as he welcomed Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar and the highest religious authority of the Sunni Muslims, to the Vatican on May 23.
The two leaders talked together in private for 25 minutes about the importance of the commitment of “the authorities and the faithful of the major religions” to peace, the rejection of violence and terrorism and the protection of Christians amid conflicts and tensions in the Middle East.
They talked face to face with the assistance of a translator—Monsignor Gaid Yoannis Lahzi, a Coptic Egyptian priest and one of the pope’s private secretaries.
The significance of the meeting cannot be underestimated. Some 22 percent of the world’s population is Muslim today, and 85 percent of all Muslims are Sunnis, while 13 percent are Shias. Al-Azhar, founded in 969 C.E. in Cairo, is the most prestigious center of learning of Sunni Islam and provides formation for thousands of imams each year, more than any other Islamic institution in the world.
Today’s meeting is a very important step forward in relations between Christians and Muslims and in the promotion of the culture of encounter, dialogue and peace between peoples and societies. It took on a particular significance for peace coming as it did in a world hit by wars and terrorism, with groups like ISIS that justify their use of violence in the name of Islam. It also took place against the backdrop of infighting among the Sunnis regarding the interpretation of the Quran, and of an ongoing regional power struggle between Sunnis and Shias that has added to the tension and resulted in some terrible consequences.
It should be emphasized that today’s encounter is the first time ever that the sheik of Al-Azhar has visited the Vatican to meet the pope. Al-Azhar sources said the grand imam came because ever since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has reached out to Muslims in a way that has contributed to a new climate of understanding.
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