(Vatican Radio)  Pope Francis received in audience in the Vatican on Monday the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheik Ahmed Muhammad Al-Tayyib.


In a note, the director of the Holy See Press Office, Fr. Federico Lombardi. said the approximately 30-minute meeting was “very cordial” and that the Grand Imam of Egypt “was accompanied by an important delegation, which included: Dr. Abbas Shouman, Undersecretary of Al-Azhar; Dr. Mahmaoud Hamdi Zakzouk, member of the Council of Senior Scholars of Al-Azhar University and Director of the Center for Dialogue of Al-Azhar; Judge Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Salam, Advisor to the Great Imam; Dr. Mohie Afifi Afifi Ahmed, secretary-general of the Islamic Research Academy; Ambassador Mahmoud Abdel Gawad, Diplomatic Advisor to the Grand Imam; Mr. Tamer Tawfik, Advisor; and Mr Ahmad Alshourbagy, Second Secretary. The delegation was accompanied by the Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt to the Holy See, Mr. Hatem Seif Elnasr.

Upon his arrival in the Vatican, the Grand Imam was welcomed, and then accompanied to his audience with the Pope, by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and by the secretary of the same dicastery, Bishop Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot.

Fr. Lombardi further stated that the Pope and Grand Imam noted “the great significance of this new meeting in the framework of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam.” The two then mainly “discussed the common commitment of the authorities and the faithful of the great religions for peace in the world, the rejection of violence and terrorism, the situation of Christians in the context of conflicts and tensions in the Middle East and their protection.” As a gift, Pope Francis gave the Grand Imam the medallion of the olive tree of peace and a copy of his Encyclical Letter Laudato si’.

Al-Azhar mosque (CNA photo) –

al-azhar Mosque - CNA

Following his audience with the Holy Father, the Grand Imam and his delegation met briefly with Cardinal Tauran and Bishop Guixot Ayuso in another audience hall in the Apostolic Palace.


Pope Francis told the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheik Ahmed Muhammad Al-Tayyib, this morning that “the meeting was the message.”

And, in a subtle but significant way, the Holy See Press Office underlined that by calling the meeting “very cordial,” adding the word “very” to its usual description of a papal meeting as “cordial.”

To know why today was historic, let’s take another look – a fairly long one – at some recent Church history, starting with Pope Benedict XVI’s September 12 speech in Regensburg, Germany during a visit to his home country and region of Bavaria. In that speech, Pope Benedict used some quotations that riled up the Muslim world for months afterwards.

It was the third Paragraph that caused all the furor when the Pope used a quote from a conversation between the “erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam.” Benedict quoted the emperor who said to “his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general: ‘Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached’.”

At the time, I studied the various language texts and noted one difference – a difference that was for me an interesting, almost startling one: of the six language versions of the papal talk, only one, English, does not use the word jihad in that paragraph. We see German – Djihād, des heiligen Krieges; French – djihad, de la guerre sainte; Italian – jihād, della guerra santa; English – holy war; Portuguese jihād, da guerra santa, and Spanish: yihad, la guerra santa.

Benedict XVI was merely quoting, not expressing his own thoughts on Islam vis-à-vis “holy war.” In fact, Benedict defined the emperor’s words as being said with “a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable.”

Click here to read entire speech: http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2006/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20060912_university-regensburg.html

Eight days later, September 20, back in Rome, Benedict XVI spoke of the September 12 Regensburg address, entitled “Faith, Reason and the University – Memories and Reflections,” in the general audience. Here is what he said:

“On that day it was a particularly beautiful experience for me to deliver a conference to a large audience of teachers and students at the University of Regensburg, where I taught as professor for many years.

“With joy, I was able to meet once again the university world that was my spiritual homeland for a long period of my life. As a theme I had chosen the issue of the relationship between faith and reason.

“To introduce my audience to the drama and timeliness of the topic, I cited some words from a 14th-century Christian-Islamic dialogue, with which the Christian interlocutor, the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus – in an incomprehensibly brusque way for us – presented to his Islamic interlocutor the problem of relations between religion and violence.

“This citation, unfortunately, lent itself to misinterpretation. For the attentive reader of my text, however, it is clear that in no way did I want to make my own the negative words spoken by the Medieval Emperor in this dialogue, and that their polemical content does not express my personal conviction. My intention was quite different:  starting with what Manuel II subsequently said in a positive manner, with very beautiful words, about rationality that must guide us in the transmission of faith, I wanted to explain that it is not religion and violence but rather religion and reason that go together.

“The topic of my lecture – responding to the mission of the University – was therefore the relationship between faith and reason: I wished to invite [people] to the dialogue of the Christian faith with the modern world and to the dialogue of all the cultures and religions.

“I hope that in the various circumstances during my visit – for example, when in Munich I emphasized how important it is to respect what is sacred to others – that my deep respect for the great religions, and especially for Muslims, who “worship God, who is one” and with whom we are engaged in preserving and promoting together, for the benefit of all men, “peace, liberty, social justice and moral values” (Nostra Aetate, n. 3), appeared quite clear.

“Therefore, I trust that after the immediate reactions, my words at the University of Regensburg will serve as an incentive and an encouragement for a positive, even self-critical dialogue, both between religions and between modern reason and the Christian faith.”

For months, reaction to the Pope’s speech was called “the Regensburg effect.” On September 25, the Pope held a meeting with ambassadors from Muslim countries. In October, a little over a month after the Regensburg address, Benedict XVI received an “open letter” signed by 38 Muslim personalities from various countries that discussed the views on Islam expressed by the Holy Father in Regensburg. The complete English text of that letter was published on Sunday, October 15, 2006 on the website of “Islamica Magazine,” a periodical published in the United States that holds the copyright to this document.

Over the years, the reaction to the papal words in 2006 became less and less virulent but another eruption occurred in 2011.

Here is the story I posted on January 20, 2011, concerning the suspension of dialogue between the Vatican and Al-Azhar university in Cairo, a break that would last five years:


In breaking news coming today from Egypt we learn that Al-Azhar university in Cairo, the foremost institution of Islamic learning in the Sunni Muslim world, is suspending its dialogue with the Vatican, saying in a statement that its decision was made during an emergency meeting Thursday and the suspension is “indefinite.” Officials said such a freeze in dialogue with the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue is due to Pope Benedict’s remarks in his January 10 speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See when he said Christians must be protected in Egypt. The Pope’s remarks came on the heels of a New Year Day bombing on a Coptic church in Alexandria that killed 21 people.

Egypt was not the only country mentioned by the Holy Father when he addressed the diplomats and urged the protection of Christians and other religious minorities.

Holy See Press Office director, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, told journalists Thursday that, “the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, is gathering the necessary information to assess the situation, since it had not received any prior communication on the part of Al Azhar University in reference to the problem.” He also stated that, “the position of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, and of the Holy See, even now remains the same as always, and that is an attitude of openness and readiness for dialogue.”

AsiaNews, in its report from Cairo, quoted academy member Abdel Muti al-Bayoumi as saying, “this decision was made in response to the position taken by Pope Benedict XVI on Islam.” In this regard, said AsiaNews, al-Bayoumi recalled the Pope’s controversial Regensburg address of 2006. The Al-Azhar academic added that the decision also takes into account, ” the recent unacceptable interference (by the Pope), who sought protection for Coptic Christians,” after the massacre in Alexandria.”

AsiaNews reported that the Al Azhar decision comes just days after the Egyptian government’s criticism of the Vatican sparked by Benedict XVI mentioning the tragedy of the Alexandria to the diplomats. In fact, Egypt recalled its ambassador, demanding that the Vatican not intervene in the country’s internal affairs.

Benedict XVI was also criticized by the Imam of Al-Azhar University on January 1st. According to Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the Pope, in his New Year’s address, only appealed for the defense of Christians, failing to concern himself with the Muslims in Iraq. Even Arab leaders, who met yesterday in Sharm el-Sheikh, while condemning the “terrorist” attacks on Christians in Egypt and Iraq, warned against “foreign interference on the issue of minority rights.”

And today the doors to dialogue were once again opened.

Post scriptum: Interestingly enough, during the 2015 synod of bishops, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, commented in his blog on the fact that, during a general audience, “I thought (Pope Francis) might say something about the Synod, but he didn’t. Perhaps he thought it would be premature or that his words, whatever they were, would be pounced upon and misinterpreted in a way that wouldn’t be helpful at this delicate midpoint of the Synod process.”

And then he added; “Benedict XVI learnt the hard way how the words of a Pope can be misread: think of his Regensburg address which would have been perfectly OK in an academic common room but which really stirred the pot given it was the Pope who was speaking. When I was working in the Vatican Secretariat of State, helping to prepare and finalize texts for the Pope, the golden rule was: “When in doubt, leave it out.” In other words, if there’s any chance that this or that text may be misread or turned against the Pope, “drop it.”