Pope, Al-Azhar Imam embrace in Vatican

Pope Francis (R) talks with Egyptian Imam of al-Azhar Mosque Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb (L) during a private audience at the Vatican on May 23, 2016. Pope Francis met the grand imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque at the Vatican on Monday in a historic encounter that was sealed with a hugely symbolic hug and exchange of kisses. / AFP

Pope Francis met the grand imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque at the Vatican on Monday in a historic encounter that was sealed with a hugely symbolic hug and exchange of kisses.

The first Vatican meeting between the leader of the world's Catholics and the highest authority in Sunni Islam marks the culmination of a significant improvement in relations between the two faiths since Francis took office in 2013.

"Our meeting is the message," Francis said in a brief comment at the start of his meeting with Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayeb, Vatican officials told a small pool of reporters covering the event.

In a statement on the trip, Al-Azhar, an institution that also comprises a prestigious seat of learning, said Tayeb had accepted Francis's invitation in order to "explore efforts to spread peace and co-existence."

The "very cordial" meeting lasted around 30 minutes, the Vatican said in a statement after the talks. In all, the imam spent just over an hour at St Peter's.

Monday's visit was effectively the long-delayed reciprocal meeting and the Vatican said that both clerics had "underlined the great significance of this new meeting".

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said in a statement that the pope and the imam had "mainly addressed the common challenges faced by the authorities and faithful of the major religions of the world."

Tayeb decided to accept the invitation to Rome as a result of the numerous conciliatory gestures Francis has made to the Muslim world since being elected in early 2013.

"If it were not for these good positions the meeting would not be happening," the imam's deputy, Abbas Shuman, told AFP on Sunday.

Shuman said Tayeb would be carrying with him a message for both the West and Muslims designed to promote "true Islam and to correct misunderstandings created by extremist terrorist groups."

 

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