VATICAN CITY • Pope Francis met the grand imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque at the Vatican yesterday in a historic encounter that was sealed with a hugely symbolic hug and exchange of kisses.
The first Vatican meeting between the leader of the world's Catholics and the highest authority in Sunni Islam marks the culmination of a significant improvement in relations between the two faiths since Pope Francis took office in 2013.
"Our meeting is the message," Pope Francis said in a brief comment at the start of his meeting with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Vatican officials told a small pool of reporters covering the event.
In a statement on the trip, Al-Azhar, an institution that also comprises a prestigious seat of learning, said the grand imam had accepted Pope Francis' invitation in order to "explore efforts to spread peace and coexistence".
The "very cordial" meeting lasted around 30 minutes, the Vatican said in a statement after the talks. In all, the grand imam spent just over an hour at St Peter's.
Sheikh Tayeb's decision to fly to Rome, announced unexpectedly last week, followed the easing of serious tensions that marked the reign of Pope Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
A MESSAGE FOR THE WEST AND MUSLIMS
He encourages countries not to deal with their Muslim citizens as groups that present a threat. And he encourages Muslims in Western society to meld with their societies... It is a message for both sides. ''
DR ABBAS SHUMAN, the grand imam's deputy, on the cleric's message during his visit to the Vatican.
Ties were badly soured when the now-retired Benedict made a September 2006 speech in which he was perceived to have linked Islam to violence, sparking deadly protests in several countries and reprisal attacks on Christians.
Pope John-Paul II met the then grand imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo in 2000, a year before the Sept 11, 2001 attacks in the United States transformed relations between the West and the Islamic world.
Yesterday's visit was effectively the long-delayed reciprocal meeting, and the Vatican said that both clerics had "underlined the great significance of this new meeting".
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said in a statement that the Pope and the grand imam had "mainly addressed the common challenges faced by the authorities and faithful of the major religions of the world".
These included working together for world peace, rejecting violence and terrorism, and the situation and protection of Christians against a backdrop of conflict and terrorism in the Middle East.
The Pope presented Sheikh Tayeb with a copy of his recent encyclical, Laudato Si', a letter to the faithful in which he urges the world to wake up to the threat posed by climate change and also calls for a rebalancing of the economic relationship between the industrialised and developing worlds.
The grand imam's deputy, Dr Abbas Shuman, told Agence France- Presse on Sunday that Sheikh Tayeb would be carrying with him a message for both the West and Muslims.
"He encourages countries not to deal with their Muslim citizens as groups that present a threat," Mr Shuman said.
"And he encourages Muslims in Western society to meld with their societies... It is a message for both sides."