VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Monday embraced the grand imam Sheik Ahmed Muhammad el-Tayyib during a meeting at the Vatican, a move which is being seen as a step toward reopening dialogue between Christians and Sunni Muslims.
“Our meeting is the message,” the Pope was heard to have said to the imam during the meeting.
The pontiff and el-Tayyib, who is the grand imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque, observed the significance of the meeting “within the framework of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam,” said Holy See Press Office director Father Federico Lombardi.
They addressed the commitment on the part of authorities and the faithful of major religions alike toward bringing world peace, “the rejection of violence and terrorism, and the situation of Christians in the context of conflicts and tensions in the Middle East and their protection.”
Following their 30-minute “very cordial” meeting in the papal private library, Pope Francis presented the imam with a medallion depicting an olive of peace, as well as a copy of his encyclical Laudato Si.
El-Tayyib was joined by a large delegation, which was joined by the ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt to the Holy See, Hatem Seif Elnasr.
The imam also met with the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, and secretary of that council, Msgr. Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot.
The meeting comes five years after Pope Benedict XVI denounced a New Year's Eve attack that killed 21 people at a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria and called for better protection of Christian communities. According to the AP, Al-Azhar put a freeze on talks with the Holy See as a result of Benedict's remarks.
However, while the persecution of Christians has increased in the region, steps had recently been taken toward reopening dialogue.
In February, a Holy See delegation in Cairo extended an invitation for el-Tayyib to visit the Pope at the Vatican.