Pope Francis met the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque at the Vatican on Monday 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 Francis took office in 2013.
“Our meeting is the message,” Francis said in a brief comment to a small pool of reporters present at the start of his meeting with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb.
In a statement on the trip, Al-Azhar said Tayeb had accepted Francis’s invitation in order to “explore efforts to spread peace and co-existence.”
The “very cordial” meeting lasted around 30 minutes, the Vatican said in a statement after the talks.
Tayeb’s decision to fly to Rome, unexpectedly announced last week, followed the easing of serious tensions that marked the reign of of Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI.
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 September 11 attacks on New York transformed relations between the West and the Islamic world.