VATICAN CITY — For Pope Francis, dialogue with Islam is a core issue. He recently voiced hopes to meet a major Sunni leader: the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Mosque, Ahmed el-Tayeb.
“I want to meet him. I know that he would like it,” the Pope said during his Feb. 18 in-flight press conference.
The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, headed by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, is reaching out to al-Azhar Mosque. The al-Azhar Mosque and its companion university are the most prominent institutions of Sunni Islam. Both institutions were founded in the 10th century. In 1961, the university added non-religious curricula.
“We are looking for the way, always through Cardinal Tauran because it is the path, but we will achieve it,” Pope Francis said on his flight from Mexico to Italy.
El-Tayeb has been imam of the al-Azhar Mosque since his 2010 election. He was elected rector of the university in 2003. He is known as a Sunni leader who has worked to prevent Islamist extremism.
Father Miguel Ayuso Guixot, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, visited al-Azhar on Feb. 16 and met with the mosque’s deputy imam, Abbas Shuman. The Holy See Press Office said the two had a “cordial meeting.”
At this meeting, the priest invited the Grand Imam to meet with the Pope at the Vatican.
Repairing Broken Contact
Among the many reasons this Feb. 16 meeting is noteworthy: al-Azhar had broken relations with the Vatican in 2011.
On Jan. 1 of that year, a major bombing took place in Alexandria. The attack on Coptic Christians killed 23 people.
In an immediate reaction, Benedict XVI labeled the attacks as “terrorism” that “brutally affected worshippers.” He characterized the attacks as part of a “strategy of violence” against Christians. He reiterated his concerns in his New Year’s speech to the corps of diplomats accredited to the Holy See. He asked protection for religious minorities.
El-Tayeb reacted negatively to these two statements. He blamed Benedict for “interference” in Egyptian internal affairs, which might result in a “negative political reaction” in the East and in Egypt.
Ever since, the Vatican and al-Azhar had no official ties for dialogue. However, Mahmoud Azab, a representative of the Grand Imam, took part in the Vatican launch of the Global Freedom Network, an initiative to counter human trafficking.
Recently, el-Tayeb has launched a multilingual satellite television broadcast. He has begun to revise education curricula in order to advance interreligious dialogue.
Pope Francis’ Outreach
The dialogue with Islam is so important to Pope Francis that he elevated Father Ayuso to the rank of bishop. The appointment was announced Jan. 29. The bishop-designate is an expert in Islam and served as a professor in Cairo. After his ordination, his new rank will give him a major impact in his work to strengthen connections with the Islamic world, a commitment crucial to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
Cardinal Tauran and Father Ayuso had a private audience with Pope Francis Feb. 20. At this meeting they reported on the cardinal’s trip to Doha, the capital of Qatar.
While Father Ayuso was in Cairo, Cardinal Tauran traveled to Qatar. There, he gave a speech at a two-day conference on the topic “Spiritual and Intellectual Security in Light of Religious Doctrines.” The conference was sponsored by the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue.
In his remarks, Cardinal Tauran stressed that dialogue among religions is needed “now more than ever.” He asked his audience to pay greater attention towards “the message they convey to the youth.” He encouraged them to be “objective and respectful of legitimate differences” in ethnicity, religion, language, culture, and other categories.
As some work to secure the visit of al-Azhar’s Grand Imam to the Vatican, Pope Francis is also working to improve dialogue with Islam in Italy. He has accepted an invitation to visit the Mosque of Rome. The visit will likely take place April 10, according to a source involved in an Islamic association in Italy.
Dialogue with the Shiites
The Holy See is not ignoring dialogue with Shia Islam. Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani visited the Vatican Jan. 26. Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, gave a lecture in Qom, Iran on Feb. 6. The cardinal said that the social teaching of the Church is the key to fostering interreligious dialogue.
Qom is another center of Islamic-Christian dialogue. For Shiite Muslims, Qom is a holy city. The city receives some 15 million pilgrims per year. They visit and worship at the shrine where Fatima Masumeh, the sister of Islam’s eighth imam, is buried.
The city’s University of Religions and Denominations has developed the idea to translate the Catechism of the Catholic Church into the Farsi language.
Qom is imbued with spirituality. The city has more than 100 study centers and 50-60,000 students of the Quran and Islam. About 2,000 of these students also study Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.