Source: The Washington Post
By Max Bearak
Writes about foreign affairs for the Washington Post. Previously, he reported from South Asia for the New York Times and others.
With a hugely symbolic hug and an exchange of kisses on the cheek, Pope Francis and the grand imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque, which houses a 1,000-year-old university, took a major step toward restoring relations between major branches of the world’s two largest faiths, Roman Catholicism and Sunni Islam. The two met privately for 25 minutes in the pope’s private library at the Vatican.
“This meeting is the message,” the pope told the imam, Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb.
More than five years had passed since comments made by the previous pope, Benedict XVI, put religious authorities at al-Azhar on the defensive, and relations on ice. After a Christmas Eve bombing of a Coptic Christian church killed 21 people in 2010, Benedict said the attack was “yet another sign of the urgent need for the governments of the region to adopt effective measures for the protection of religious minorities.”
Tayeb, who remains al-Azhar’s grand imam, had found Benedict’s statement insulting. A religious council under his direction “reviewed in an emergency meeting … the repeatedly insulting remarks issued by the Vatican Pope towards Islam and his statement that Muslims are discriminating against others who live with them in the Middle East,” according to a written statementfrom January 2011. “The council decided to freeze dialogue between al-Azhar and the Vatican for an indefinite period.”
Cairo also recalled its envoy to the Vatican at the time. Coptic Christians, who have their own pope based in Alexandria, make up more than 10 percent of Egypt’s population. “Egypt will not allow any non-Egyptian faction to interfere in its internal affairs under any pretext,” the Foreign Ministry said in 2011. “The Coptic question is specifically an internal Egyptian affair.”
Tayeb saw Benedict’s comments as explicitly linking Islam with violence, while also ignoring the killing of Muslims at a time of great bloodshed throughout the region. “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?” he asked at the time.