After a five-year hiatus in dialogue, Pope Francis has met with Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque. The al-Azhar Mosque and university complex may be considered to be the highest authority in the Sunni Muslim world. The half-hour meeting took place last Monday at the Vatican and it marks a reconciliation between the two powers.
The BBC reports that relations between the al-Azhar and the Vatican deteriorated in 2006 after comments made by Pope Benedict implied that Islam was a violent religion. Despite Pope Benedict repeatedly explaining that the remarks did not reflect his own views, and instead were quoted from a 14th century Byzantine emperor, meetings between the two powers have been frozen since 2011.
The election of Pope Francis in early 2013 has seen an improvement of relations, especially in terms of the acceptance of conciliatory gestures that Francis has made to the Muslim world.
Last Monday, Sheikh Tayeb accepted the invitation to Rome, visiting the Vatican en route to a conference in Paris concerning interfaith relations. Pope Francis was quoted as saying that the occurrence of the meeting itself was significant. The poignant meeting marks the resolution of a conflict and the beginning of a dynamic dialogue on the effects of potential tensions between the two religions.
In a subsequent statement, the Vatican said that the two leaders discussed the issues of violence and terrorism, as well as the situation and protection of Christians in the Middle East. The majority of the population in Egypt is Sunni Muslim, and Christians account for only about 10 percent of the population. Occasionally, sectarian violence erupts over disputes regarding church buildings, religious conversations, and interfaith relationships.
The overall effect of the meeting itself is significant in that the leaders both reached out to moderate Muslims in the Middle East, while also raising awareness about the region’s persecuted Christians. However, it is important to consider that Muslims are disproportionately represented among the victims of Islamic radicalism, as Islam is the prevalent religion in most of the region.
The historic meeting instills an atmosphere of hope in the two leaders and the expectation for a dialogue between the two faiths. Ideally, this will lead to a greater understanding of each religion, and one that is based on mutual respect.
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