VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis will become the first pope to meet the spiritual leader of the world’s Sunni Muslims when they converge at the Vatican on Monday, the Vatican announced today.

Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar, the most prestigious institution in Sunni Islam, will have the unprecedented private audience with the Holy Father after he received an invitation from the Vatican in February.

“The audience with the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the Egyptian university considered the most authoritative theological-academic institution of Sunni Islam, is in a preparation phase for next Monday,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters Thursday afternoon, but added that, at the moment, the Vatican doesn’t yet have more details.

In February, Archbishop Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, accompanied the apostolic nuncio to Egypt, Archbishop Bruno Musarò, on ​​a visit to the Islamic university.

During the visit, Archbishop Ayuso hand-delivered a letter from Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council, in which the cardinal expressed his willingness to receive the grand imam and to accompany him officially to an audience with the Pope. 

On the flight back from Mexico in February, Francis said of el-Tayeb: “I want to meet him. I know that he would like it.”

Monday’s visit will mark the restoration of cordial relations between the Vatican and Al-Azhar, which broke off in 2011, when Pope Benedict XVI called for the protection of Christian minorities.

Those comments followed a bomb attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt, which Benedict labeled “terrorism” that “brutally affected worshippers” and was part of a “strategy of violence” against Christians. He reiterated his concerns in his 2012 New Year’s speech to the corps of diplomats accredited to the Holy See, when he pleaded for protection for religious minorities.

But Al-Azhar viewed his intervention as meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs. It froze relations with the Holy See, which had cooled since Benedict XVI’s 2006 Regensburg lecture, in which he linked Islam to violence, and the Egyptian government also temporarily withdrew its ambassador to the Holy See.

 

Priority for Pope Francis

Pope Francis has made interreligious dialogue one of his pontificate’s top priorities, and relations have improved with Al-Azhar in recent years. Almost immediately after Francis’ election in March 2013, the university expressed hope for “reassuring and productive signs, so that dialogue can resume” with the Vatican.

A week later, the grand imam also sent a letter of congratulations to the new Pope. He received a letter of thanks from Cardinal Tauran, but the university rejected it, saying it wanted a letter from the Holy Father himself, which it duly received.

Al-Azhar wields considerable influence, especially in Egypt, where it was part of a coalition that, together with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II and others, helped topple the government of Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi in 2014.

Monday’s meeting comes at a time when many Christians are being persecuted and martyred in Muslim-majority countries, especially in the Middle East.

Earlier this week, in an interview with the French Catholic daily La Croix, Francis said: “I don’t think that there is a fear of Islam as such, but of ISIS [the violent Islamist group] and its war of conquest, which is partly drawn from Islam.”

He said it is “true that the idea of conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam,” but added that it is also possible, in the sense of building the kingdom of God, to “interpret the objective in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus sends his disciples to all nations, in terms of the same idea of conquest.”

He said that, in the face of Islamic terrorism, “it would, therefore, be better to question ourselves about the way an overly Western model of democracy has been exported to countries such as Iraq, where a strong government previously existed, or in Libya, where a tribal structure exists.”

The Pope said that, “ultimately, co-existence between Christians and Muslims is still possible” and pointed out that in his native country of Argentina, they “cohabit on good terms.”

Modern popes have achieved a number of milestones in encounters with Islam: Pope St. John Paul II was the first pope to enter a mosque, when he visited the Olmayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, in 2001. Benedict XVI was the first pope to visit the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul in 2006, just weeks after his Regensburg lecture.

He was also the first pope to hold a private audience with a reigning monarch of Saudi Arabia, when he received King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the Vatican in 2007. The Saudi sovereign is traditionally the custodian of the “Two Holy Mosques” in Mecca and Medina.

Pope Francis has had a number of encounters with Muslim leaders, one of the most significant being with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, a country whose Muslim population is predominantly Shiite.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.