The Vatican has announced it will send a representative to Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque on Sunday ahead of an official resumption of dialogue between the Catholic Church’s governing body and the most prestigious learning center in Sunni Islam.
Al-Azhar broke off talks with the Vatican five years ago after comments from then-Pope Benedict XVI. But relations have improved significantly under Pope Francis, who earlier this year held talks with the grand imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, considered the highest authority in Sunni Islam.
Now, it has been announced that the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Bishop Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, will set off to Cairo to meet a delegation with Al-Azhar. The meeting is intended to lay the groundwork for a further encounter in Rome in April 2017, reports the Catholic News Agency which describes it as a seismic step in Catholic-Muslim relations.
The relationship first became strained after a speech by the since-retired Benedict in 2006 when he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor’s unfavorable views of Islam’s founder.
"The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war," the Pope said. "He said, I quote, 'Show me just what Muhammad 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.'"
In 2011, Egypt recalled its Vatican envoy after Benedict called on world leaders to protect Copts – the largest Christian denomination in Egypt – following a church bombing in the country that killed 21 people.
"I disagree with the pope's view, and I ask why did the pope not call for the protection of Muslims when they were subjected to killings in Iraq?" al-Tayeb said at the time.
But Pope Francis has taken a very different tact since being elected in 2013. In August, he stressed that it was wrong to make a link between those committing terrorist acts in the name of a radical-Islamic ideology and the whole of Islam.
"I think that in nearly all religions there is always a small fundamentalist group," he said. "We have them," he added, referring to Catholicism.
He added: "I don't like to talk about Islamic violence because every day when I look at the papers I see violence here in Italy – someone killing his girlfriend, someone killing his mother-in-law. These are baptized Catholics. If I speak of Islamic violence, I have to speak of Catholic violence. Not all Muslims are violent."