Credit for the photos goes to L’Osservatore Romano/EWTN


Yesterday, after the audience in the Apostolic Palace, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Professor Ahmad Al-Tayyib, granted an interview to the Vatican media. It took place at the residence of the Egyptian ambassador to the Holy See, and two reporters from the Vatican Radio participated: Fr. Jean-Pierre Yammine, head of the Arabic Section, and Cyprien Viet, from the French Section, along with Maurizio Fontana of L’Osservatore Romano. The interview was recorded in audio and video by Radio Vaticana and the Vatican Television Centre, and took place entirely in Arabic. It was translated into Italian by the Arabic Section of Vatican Radio.

SS. Papa Francesco - Ahmad Muhammad al-Tayyib 23-05-2016 @Servizio Fotografico - L'Osservatore Romano

1)  John Paul II was the first Pope to visit the Grand Imam of al-Azhar during his visit to Egypt as part of the Great Jubilee of 2000. Today the Grand Imam is the first to visit the Pope in the Vatican on the occasion of the Jubilee of Mercy. What is the meaning of these important events?

In the name of Clement and Merciful God, I would first like to convey my thanks to His Holiness Pope Francis, for having welcomed me with my delegation from Al-Azhar, and for the warm welcome and affection reserved to me. Today we pay this visit as part of an Al-Azhar initiative, and the agreement between Al-Azhar and the Vatican to continue our holy mission, which is the mission of religions: “to make human beings joyful everywhere”. Al-Azhar has a dialogue, or rather a commission for interreligious dialogue with the Vatican, which was suspended in specific circumstances, but now those circumstances no longer exist, we resume the path of dialogue and hope that it will be better than before. And I am happy to be the first Sheikh of Al-Azhar to visit the Vatican and to sit alongside the Pope in an encounter of discussion and understanding.

SS. Papa Francesco - Ahmad Muhammad al-Tayyib 23-05-2016 @Servizio Fotografico - L'Osservatore Romano

2)  A short while ago the Grand Imam met Pope Francis in the Vatican. What can we say about this encounter and the atmosphere in which it took place? 

The first impression, which was very strong, is that this man is a man of peace, a man who follows the teaching of Christianity, which is a religion of love and peace, and following His Holiness we have seen that he is a man who respects other religions and shows consideration for their followers; he is man who also consecrates his life to serve the poor and the destitute, and who takes responsibility for people in general; he is an ascetic man, who has renounced the ephemeral pleasures of worldly life. All these are qualities that we share with him, and therefore we wish to encounter this man in order to work together for humanity in this vast field we have in common.

3)   What are the duties of the great religious authorities and religious leaders in today’s world? 

These responsibilities are heavy and grave at the same time, because we are aware, as we said also to His Holiness, that all the philosophies and modern social ideologies that have taken the lead of humanity, far from religion and far from heaven, have failed to make man happy or to take him far from wars and bloodshed. I believe that the moment has arrived for the representatives of the Divine Religions to participate strongly and in a concrete way to give humanity a new direction, towards mercy and peace, so that humanity can avoid the great crisis we are suffering now. Man without religion constitutes a danger to his fellow man, and I believe that people now, in the twenty-first century, have started to look around and to seek out wise guides to lead them in the right direction. And all this has led us to this meeting and this discussion, and to the agreement to begin to take a step in the right direction.

SS. Papa Francesco - Ahmad Muhammad al-Tayyib 23-05-2016 @Servizio Fotografico - L'Osservatore Romano

4)  The University of Al-Azhar is engaged in important work in renewing scholastic texts. Can you tell us something about this project?

Yes, we renew them in the sense that we clarify the Muslim concepts that have been deviated by those who use violence and terrorism, and by armed movements that claim to work for peace. We have identified these erroneous concepts, and we have offered this as part of a curriculum to our students in middle and high schools, we have shown them the deviant side and the deviant understanding, and at the same time we have tried to make our students understand the correct concepts, from which these extremists and terrorists have deviated. We have established a world observatory that monitors in eight languages the material disseminated by these extremist movements, and the distorted ideas that deviate youth. And today this material is corrected and then translated into other languages. Through the “Home of the Egyptian Family” – which reunites Muslims with all the Christian confessions in Egypt, and is a joint project between Al-Azhar and the Churches – we seek to offer an answer to those who take opportunities and wait in ambush to sow disorder, divisions and conflicts between Christians and Muslims.

We also have the Muslim Council of Elders, chaired by the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, and this Council sends peace delegations to the various world capitals and carries out important activity in favour of peace and to promote genuine Islam. We held in the past, around a year ago, a conference in Florence, right here in Italy, on the theme “East and West”, or rather “The Collaboration between East and West”. In addition, we receive at Al-Azhar imams from mosques in Europe, as part of a two-month programme offering formation in dialogue, exposing erroneous concepts and dealing with the integration of Muslims in European societies and nations, so that they may be a resource for the security, prosperity and strength of those countries.

SS. Papa Francesco - Ahmad Muhammad al-Tayyib 23-05-2016 @Servizio Fotografico - L'Osservatore Romano

5)   The Middle East is experiencing great difficulties. What messages would you like to give us in this regard, on the occasion of this visit to the Vatican?

Certainly. I come from the Middle East where I live and I suffer, along with others, the consequences of the rivers of blood and cadavers, and there is no logical reason for this catastrophe that we are living day and night. Certainly there are internal and external motivations, whose convergence has inflamed these wars. Today I am in the heart of Europe and I would like to make the most of my presence in this institution, so great for Catholics – the Vatican – to launch an appeal to the entire world so that it can unite and close ranks to confront and put an end to terrorism, because I believe that if this terrorism is neglected, the price will be paid not only in the east; both east and west could suffer together, as we have seen. Therefore this is my appeal to the world and to the free men of the world: to come to an agreement immediately and to intervene to put an end to these rivers of blood.

Allow me to say something in this declaration: yes, terrorism exists, but Islam has nothing to do with this terrorism, and this applies to Ulama Muslims and to Christians and Muslims in the East. And those who kill Muslims, and who also kill Christians, have misunderstood the texts of Islam either intentionally or by negligence. A year ago Al-Azhar held a General Conference for Ulama Muslims, Sunni and Shiite, and invited the leaders of the Eastern Churches, of various religions and confessions, and even the Yazidi sent a representative to this conference under the aegis of Al-Azhar. Among the most salient points of the joint declaration, it was said that Islam and Christianity have nothing to do with those who kill, and we asked the West not to confuse this deviant and misled group with Muslims. We said with one voice, Muslims and Christians, that we are the masters of this land and we are partners, and each one of us has a right to this land.

We have rejected forced emigration, slavery and the trade in women in the name of Islam. Here I would like to say that the issue must not be presented as persecution of Christians in the East, but on the contrary there are more Muslim than Christian victims, and we all suffer this catastrophe together. In summary, I would like to conclude on this matter by saying that we must not blame religions because of the deviations of some of their followers, because in every religion there exists a deviant faction that raises the flag of religion to kill in its name.

SS. Papa Francesco - Ahmad Muhammad al-Tayyib 23-05-2016 @Servizio Fotografico - L'Osservatore Romano

6)  Before concluding, would you like to add anything?

I again express my heartfelt thanks, my appreciation and my hope – that I will carry with me – of working together, Muslims and Christians, Al-Azhar and the Vatican, to relieve human beings wherever they are, regardless of their religion and belief, and to save them from destructive wars, poverty, ignorance and disease.

SS. Papa Francesco - Ahmad Muhammad al-Tayyib 23-05-2016 @Servizio Fotografico - L'Osservatore Romano




(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:

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.”