VATICAN CITY — Less than two months after one of Sunni Islam’s highest authorities came to the Vatican following several years of icy relations, Pope Francis has sent a representative to Egypt’s Al-Azhar University in a bid to restart dialogue between the two.
In accordance with “the explicit wish of Pope Francis,” Bishop Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, is currently in Egypt for an official visit to the Al-Azhar University, according to a July 12 announcement from the Vatican.
Bishop Ayuso will be accompanied by the Vatican’s ambassador to Egypt, Archbishop Bruno Musarò, for a July 13 meeting with Sunni academic and politician Mahmoud Hamdi Zakzouk, who is a member of the university’s Council of Senior Scholars, director of the Al-Azhar Center for Dialogue and Egypt’s former minister of religious endowment.
According to the Vatican’s press release, the meeting “will consider how to resume dialogue between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and Al-Azhar University.”
The Imam of Al-Azhar, currently Ahmed al Tayyeb, is considered by some Muslims to be the highest authority the 1.5-billion strong Sunni Muslim world and oversees Egypt’s al-Azhar Mosque and the prestigious al-Azhar University attached to it.
He paid a visit to the Vatican May 23 for a meeting with Pope Francis, which marked a seismic step in thawing relations between Al-Azhar and the Holy See, which were strained in 2011 with claims that Pope Benedict XVI had “interfered” in Egypt’s internal affairs by condemning a bomb attack on a church in Alexandria during the time of Coptic Christmas.
Founded in the Fatimid dynasty in the late 10th century together with the adjoining mosque, the university is one of the most renowned study centers for the legal principals of Sunni Islam.
The 30-minute encounter between the Pope and the Imam focused largely on the commitment of both faithful and authorities of major religions in working for peace, the rejection of violence and terrorism and the protection of Christians in the Middle East given their current state of persecution.
In an interview given to Vatican Radio after the meeting, Tayyeb said his first impression of Pope Francis was that the Pope was “very strong,” and “a man of peace, a man who follows the teaching of Christianity, which is a religion of love and peace.”
Francis, he said, is also a man “who respects other religions and shows consideration for their followers.”
He also decried terrorism carried out by Islamic extremists, stressing that while it exists, “Islam has nothing to do with this terrorism, and this applies to Ulama Muslims, and to Christians, and Muslims in the East.”
“Those who kill Muslims, and who also kill Christians, have misunderstood the texts of Islam either intentionally or by negligence,” he said.
Many hope that the meeting between the Vatican and Al-Azhar will lead to increased cooperation in the fight against terrorism, as well as for other urgent questions between the two religions.
While this has yet to be seen, what is clear is that relations with Islam have improved with Francis’ constant appeals for interfaith dialogue, which began shortly after his election when he sent a personal message to Muslims marking the end of the first month of Ramadan.