'The meeting is the message,' pope tells head of al-Azhar

IMAGE: CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — After five years of tension and top-level
silence, Pope Francis and the grand imam of one of the most important Sunni
Muslim universities in the world embraced at the Vatican May 23.

“The meeting is the message,” the pope told Ahmad el-Tayeb, the grand imam of
al-Azhar University, as the religious scholar approached him just inside the
door of the papal library.

El-Tayeb’s spring visit was
the first meeting between a pontiff and a grand imam since the Muslim
university in Cairo suspended talks in 2011.

Established in 1998, the
formal dialogue between al-Azhar and the Vatican started to fray in
2006, after now-retired Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech in Regensburg, Germany.
Al-Azhar officials and millions of Muslims around the world said the speech linked Islam to

Al-Azhar halted the talks altogether in 2011 after the former pope
had said Christians in the Middle East were facing persecution. Al-Azhar
claimed that Pope Benedict had offended Islam and Muslims once more by focusing
only on the suffering of Christians when many Muslims were suffering as well.

In February, Bishop Miguel
Ayuso Guixot, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue,
delivered a letter to el-Tayeb from Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, council president,
inviting him to the Vatican to meet the pope.

Cardinal Tauran and Bishop
Ayuso welcomed the imam to the Vatican May 23 and accompanied him to the papal

Pope Francis sat to the side of his
desk facing the grand imam rather than behind his desk as he customarily does
when meeting with a visiting head of state.

Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the pope spoke privately with
el-Tayeb for 25 minutes and the conversation included a discussion about
“the great significance of this new encounter within the scope of dialogue
between the Catholic Church and Islam.”

“They then dwelled upon the common
commitment of the authorities and the faithful of the great religions for world
peace, the rejection of violence and terrorism (and) the situation of Christians in the context
of conflicts and tensions in the Middle East as well as their protection,”
Father Lombardi said in a statement.

At the end of the audience, Pope
Francis presented the grand imam with two gifts: a copy of his encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” and peace medallion depicting an
olive tree holding together two pieces of a fractured rock.

After meeting the pope, the grand
imam was scheduled to travel to Paris to open the second international
conference on “East and West: Dialogue of Civilizations” May 24 sponsored by al-Azhar
University and the Catholic
Sant’Egidio Community.

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