An envoy from Sunni Islam’s highest seat of learning, Al-Azhar in Cairo, raised the prospect of restoring ties with the Vatican on Friday but called on Pope Francis to take “a step forward” by declaring that Islam is a peaceful religion.
“The problems that we had were not with the Vatican but with the former pope. Now the doors of Al-Azhar are open,” Mahmoud Abdel Gawad, diplomatic envoy to the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, told Italian daily Il Messaggero in Cairo.
“Francis is a new pope. We are expecting a step forward from him. If in one of his addresses he were to declare that Islam is a peaceful religion, that Muslims are not looking for war or violence, that would be progress in itself,” he said.
A ceremony in March in which Pope Francis washed the feet of young inmates in Rome, including a Muslim girl, was “a gesture that was very, very much appreciated” by Al-Azhar, Gawad said.
He said that if Francis were to accept an invitation from Coptic Orthodox pope Tawadros II to visit Egypt, he could also visit Al-Azhar.
“At that point, relations and dialogue would be restored immediately,” he was quoted as saying.
But Gawad ruled out the prospect of talks between the leaders of the world’s three main monotheistic religions mentioned in Vatican circles, saying Al-Azhar “will not take part in any meeting with Israelis.”
In 2006, then pope Benedict XVI sparked fury across the Muslim world when he recounted an anecdote in which the Muslim Prophet Mohammed was described as a warmonger who spread evil teachings.
Dialogue resumed in 2009, but was again severed after Benedict strongly called for protection of Christian minorities following a 2011 bombing at a church in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city.