Al-Azhar grand sheik to meet Pope at Vatican, resume relations

Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb will arrive in Rome on Monday to meet with Catholic Pope Francis, the first meeting of the heads of the two religious institutions since relations were frozen in 2011.

The meeting will be held at the Vatican headquarters, where Tayyeb plans to deliver a speech that will include a peace and tolerance message to all humanity, Youm7 reported.

The meeting is seen as marking the resumption of friendly relations between the Catholic Church and Egypt's Sunni Muslim authorities, although it is not clear whether the resumption will be announced formally.

Abbas Shuman, deputy Tayeb, told AFP on Sunday that the Grand Sheikh had been enouraged to meet with Francis due to his various positive gestures towards Muslims.

"If it were not for these good positions (by Pope Francis) the meeting would not be happening," Shuman said.

Ties between the Vatican and Al-Azhar, one of Islam's most prestigious centres of learning, soured in 2006 when Benedict delivered a speech interpreted as linking the Muslim Prophet Mohammed to violence.

Relations have steadily improved since Francis became pope in 2013 with inter-faith dialogue near the top of his agenda.

Shuman said Tayeb will have a message for both the West and Muslims.

Tayeb's visit aims at setting straight the image of "true Islam and to correct misunderstandings created by extremist terrorist groups" in Western countries, he said.

"He encourages countries not to deal with their Muslim citizens as groups that present a threat," Shuman said.

"And he encourages Muslims in Western society to meld with their societies… it is a message for both sides."

Pope Francis made headlines in April when he returned from a trip to the migrant crisis island of Lesbos with three Syrian Muslim families who are now being put up by the Vatican as they apply for asylum in Italy.

Church officials say the choice of families was random, but the gesture was nevertheless highlighted by media throughout the Islamic world.

After the two religious leaders have meet on Monday, Tayeb is expected to invite Francis to visit Al-Azhar headquarters in Cairo. Tayeb will then travel to Paris to head meeting for senior Muslim clerics.

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