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Pope Francis holds talks with Sunni Islam leader in breakthrough Vatican meeting

Pope Francis talks with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Egyptian imam of Al-Azhar Mosque, at the Vatican on May 23, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Max Rossi *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-SHEIKH, originally transmitted on May 23, 2016.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis has welcomed the highest authority in Sunni Islam to the Vatican in a significant step forward in relations between the two largest blocs in Christianity and Islam.

“The meeting is the message,” Francis said on Monday (May 23) upon greeting Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, a mosque and university complex in Cairo that is viewed as the heart of Sunni Islam, which accounts for about 85 percent, or 1.3 billion, of the world’s Muslims.

While the late Saint John Paul II had met the previous leader of Al-Azhar during a visit to Egypt in 2000, this was the first time a Sunni grand imam had visited the Vatican.

Francis had formally invited el-Tayeb to visit last year and church sources said the imam — a moderate who has sought to blunt Islamic extremism — was also responding to the various overtures that Francis, leader of some 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, has made to Islam since his election in 2013.

Relations between the Vatican and Al-Azhar had been troubled since the pontificate of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who made various remarks about Islam that had offended many Muslim leaders.

The two leaders met for nearly a half hour in the Apostolic Palace in what was described by the Vatican as a “very cordial” meeting. Both leaders recognized the “great significance of this new encounter in the framework of the dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam,” the Vatican said.

World peace was at the top of the agenda, while violence and terrorism were also discussed, according to the Vatican statement. The situation in the Middle East regarding Christians — whose plight Francis often highlights — was another central topic.

In a sign of the overarching theme of the trip, el-Tayeb concluded his visit by meeting Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The imam was accompanied to Rome by a seven-strong delegation from Cairo.

As is customary with such a high-level meeting, Francis arrived bearing gifts: a medallion of the olive tree of peace and a copy of “Laudato Si’,” the pontiff’s encyclical on the environment.

Just days before the meeting, Francis voiced his views on Islam and the so-called Islamic State group, or ISIS, that has repeatedly threatened to attack the Vatican.

“Today, I don’t think that there is a fear of Islam as such but of ISIS and its war of conquest, which is partly drawn from Islam,” the pope told French Catholic newspaper La Croix.

“It is true that the idea of conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam,” he said. “However, it is also possible to interpret the objective in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus sends his disciples to all nations, in terms of the same idea of conquest.”

Francis’ carefully chosen words came nearly a decade after Benedict, his predecessor,  received death threats after describing the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman.”

Benedict afterwards attempted to repair ties with the Muslim community, visiting the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and Francis has continued to promote interreligious dialogue.

The pope’s meeting with el-Tayib followed his condolences, sent by the Vatican’s secretary of state to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, over the EgyptAir plane crash on Thursday.

“Pope Francis wishes to assure you of his prayers and solidarity at this difficult time and commends the souls of the deceased of various nationalities to the mercy of the Almighty,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin wrote in reference to the 66 victims.

(Rosie Scammell is the Vatican correspondent for RNS)

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  • Any day now the Pope will issue a statement that Muslims don’t need Christ to be saved.

  • Sorry Pope Francis I just can’t understand how Jesus our Lord telling his disciples -A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so also you must love one another. by this will all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.” If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same, …You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.

    How are Jesus’s call to bring people into his kingdom through the power of his love,and sacrifice the same as muhammed calling his followers to convert through fear, conquest and by jihad !

  • I commend Francisco for doing this important work. I want him to devote the same effort to full inclusion of women and to going after the child molesters, but this is still a good thing.

    President Jimmy Carter, one of the best and most deserving recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, is doing similar work for the good of the human race. He’s building a Baptist coalition to face racism issues, which are becoming more apparent daily.

  • because that’s not what Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him called to. at all. that’s propaganda pure and simple and thankfully the Pope is educated.

  • peace be upon you Mona,from whom and where did this propaganda come from
    And was mohammed’s way of bringing people to faith the same as Jesus’s commission to teach people to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.

  • Except in practice it was wipe out your enemies and persecute people. Christians began that from the moment they gained any kind of political power. From the Arianist brothers in the faith onward. They didn’t even disavow murderous hatred of judaism until some time between 1945-1965. Depending on the Christian sect (other than ones which still haven’t). Sure there are exceptions who have never supported violence and preached acceptance of all, but they are the outliers

  • The Pope has said many times “who am I to judge”. In a passage about the nature of salvation, the pontiff declared that God “has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!” “Even the atheists,” he said to those who might question his assertion. “Everyone!” Pope Francis also warned. “There is always a temptation to try and take possession of the Lord.”

    As a Christian, IMHO people who have not studied the life of Muhammad and Islam’s history should refrain from judging it. Muhammad’s Charter of Medina would be a good place to start.

  • Julie- what about the people that purposely, of their own free will reject Jesus and knowingly ridicule and twist his words, whilst mocking Christian people in order to try and take away their simple faith,Jesus is the Lamb of God who came to take away the barrier of sin that we had erected of our own free will, that separated ourselves from the Father -he tells us that sinful people cannot survive in heaven, Jesus himself said to the unbelievers….. I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins…..everyone who sins is a slave to sin, but if the Son sets you free,you will be free indeed!!–the fact is that God loves each and every one of us, but do you not think that he respects our own free will to reject him – he tells us about the broad road to destruction,and that many willingly take that road

  • “In blasphemy indeed are those that say that Allah is Christ the son of Mary.” Surah 5:17

    “They do blaspheme who say: “Allah is Christ the son of Mary.” But said Christ: “O Children of Israel! worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord.” Whoever joins other gods with Allah,- Allah will forbid him the garden, and the Fire will be his abode.” Surah 5:72

    “Christ the son of Mary was no more than a messenger; many were the messengers that passed away before him.” Surah 5:75.

    So despite all this ecumenicalism and religious relatavism, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is both mocked and blasphemed. Yet one way or another, we make excuses for the Muslims because of our political slant. See it for what it is. Incompatible with Islam.

    “But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: that if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:8-9.