The afternoon of Monday 23 May saw Pope Francis receive Sheikh Ahmad al-
Tayyib, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, and a delegation of al-Azhar sheikhs, at the
Vatican Apostolic Palace.
The visit comes after some five years of ‘frozen’ relations between the Vatican and
al-Azhar, the Cairo-based Islamic institution which goes back to the 10th century
and which is today the world’s topmost authority on Sunni Islam. Relations
between the Vatican and al-Azhar had soured after the retired Pope Benedict XVI
made a speech in which he linked Islam to violence, which offended Muslims at
large and drove al-Azhar to adopt a hostile stance towards Rome.
Pope Francis, who took office in 2013, made several attempts at rapprochement.
Last November he sent an invitation to Sheikh Tayyib to visit the Vatican, in an
attempt to revive the interrupted relations between the two institutions.
When asked by reporters Monday about their message to the world, a cheerful
Pope Francis briefly said: “Our meeting is the message.”
During their 30-minute meeting which was described as ‘cordial’ despite the
sombre-looking Sheikh Tayyib, Pope Francis and Sheikh Tayyib discussed
problems relating to violence and terrorism, as well as the predicament of
Christians in the Middle East, in addition to how the Catholic Church and al-Azhar
could contribute to world peace.
Pope Francis presented Sheikh Tayyib with the Year of Mercy medal which
features an olive branch as the symbol of peace, as well as copies of his
environmental encyclical LaudatoSi’. There was talk about organising a global
peace conference sponsored by the two major religious institutions.
24 May 2016