VATICAN CITY (AFP) - The Vatican is examining the possibility of Pope Francis visiting Egypt, but no dates have been set, his spokesman said on Saturday (March 11) after Italian reports suggested the trip would happen in May.
"A trip by the Holy Father to Egypt is under study but neither dates nor a programme have been finalised," the spokesman, Greg Burke, said in a statement.
Italy's national broadcaster RAI had claimed that Pope Francis would visit Cairo from May 20-21 and that his programme would include a stop at the Al-Azhar university and mosque complex.
The pope hosted the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, at the Vatican last May, in a landmark meeting with one of Islam's top clerics.
That encounter was the culmination of a steady improvement in a relationship that had broken down because of a series of spats under Francis' predecessor Benedict XVI.
The current pope has made interfaith dialogue and reconciliation a leading theme of his pontificate and has also overseen an improvement in relations with the Orthodox and Protestant wings of Christianity.
The Argentine pope has a long-standing invitation to visit Egypt, issued by President President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi when he met Francis at the Vatican in 2014.
Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian conference of bishops, reported last month that an invitation had also been received from the Coptic Patriarch in Alexandria.
Any trip would be fraught with security concerns but those did not prevent the 80-year-old pontiff from visiting Bangui, the conflict-scarred capital of the Central African Republic in November 2015.
Francis confirmed he was expecting to visit Egypt soon in an interview with German daily Die Zeit that was published on Thursday.
Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican cardinal who deals with interfaith dialogue, visited Al-Azhar in February in the latest of a series of meetings between the two institutions.
Presuming the visit goes ahead, Francis will become the second Roman Catholic pope to visit Egypt, following John Paul II's historic trip there in February 2000.
Relations were derailed under Benedict after rows over a 2006 speech in which he was seen as having linked Islam to violence and 2011 comments condemning an attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria which Al-Azhar denounced as meddling in Egypt's affairs.
As things stand, Francis has only two overseas trips scheduled this year, one to the Fatima shrine in Portugal in April and one in September to Colombia.