Pope Francis met on Monday, May 23, the Grand Imam of Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, Al-Azhar, looking to heal relations between the two faiths after all dialogue was frozen five years ago.
Al-Azhar cut contacts with the Vatican in 2011 over what it called repeated insults towards Islam from Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict.
The decision was made after Benedict had denounced what he called “a strategy of violence that has Christians as a target” following a bomb attack outside a church in the Egyptian city of Alexandria that killed 23 people.
Since his election in 2013, Francis has put great emphasis on inter-faith relations and smiled warmly as he greeted Egypt’s top cleric, Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar.
In a subsequent statement, the Vatican said the two men had discussed the problems of violence and terrorism and the situation of Christians in the Middle East, including how to protect them.
Pope Francis last year urged an end to what he called a genocide against Christians in the Middle East, but he has also said it is wrong to equate Islam with violence.
The Pope joined the Grand Imam and other members of the Egyptian clerical delegation for a group photograph. He then presented al-Tayeb with a medallion depicting an olive branch of peace and a copy of his encyclical, “Laudato Si”.
Christians, mostly Orthodox Copts, account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s 79 million population which is mostly Sunni Muslim.Sectarian violence sometimes erupts over disputes on issues related to church building, religious conversions and interfaith relationships.