In an analysis of Monday’s meeting between Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of the al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, Vatican expert John L. Allen said that there is no Christian leader in the world today with a more credible claim to the title of a “friend of Islam.”
Lining up the Pope’s credentials for such a claim, Allen notes that Francis opposed the idea of Western strikes on the Assad regime in Syria in September 2013, which won him the enduring gratitude of the Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun. On Holy Thursday, Francis washed the feet of Muslim inmates. He has welcomed Islamic leaders to the Vatican, and has become Europe’s “leading voice of compassion for Muslim refugees,” Allen states, including bringing back three Syrian Muslim refugee families after his recent trip to the Greek island of Lesbos.
Along with his direct outreach to Muslims, Francis has also visited five places with a majority Muslim population, Allen observes, while paradoxically he has yet to make a single state visit to anywhere in Western Europe, “the traditional cradle of Christendom.” So far, he has visited Jordan, the “State of Palestine,” Turkey, Albania and Sarajevo.
As further evidence for his claim, Allen cites the Pope’s recent interview in La Croix, where he insisted that “co-existence between Christians and Muslims is still possible,” while criticizing the West for attempting to impose its version of democracy on Islamic nations such as Iraq and Libya.
In his meeting with the Grand Imam Monday, Pope Francis offered a “hugely symbolic” hug and exchange of kisses, and told a small group of reporters: “Our meeting is the message.”
The Vatican did not release a text of the Pope’s words to the Grand Imam, but reportedthat in their noon meeting the two focused “on the common commitment of the authorities and faithful of the great religions to peace in the world, the rejection of violence and terrorism, the situation of Christians in the context of conflict and tension in the Middle East, and their protection.”
The official communiqué also said that the two men underscored “the great significance of this new meeting in the framework of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam,” and noted that the discussion between the two leaders “took place in a very cordial atmosphere” and “lasted for around thirty minutes.”
As Breitbart News reported last week, the Al-Azhar university is the most prestigious institution in Sunni Islam, and the meeting between the two religious leaders was without precedent.
Al-Azhar had broken off its one-time collaboration with the Vatican in 2011, after Pope Benedict XVI spoke out against an attack on Coptic Christians in Alexandria as a reason why it was urgent for governments in the region to adopt “effective measures for the protection of religious minorities,” which authorities interpreted as a meddling in the country’s internal politics.
As one of the chief centers of Islamic learning in the world, the al-Azhar university is an important reference point for Sunni Muslims, and boasts a yearly enrollment of some 90,000 students.