The news today that the Vatican plans to send a high-ranking official to Cairo, in hopes of restarting talks at a leading Sunni Muslim university, is important for a number of reasons.
First, this move marks a possible thaw in relations that had grown frosty. If nothing else, it also signals a symbolic gesture of conciliation and respect toward one of the oldest universities in the world, one which has always been a powerful voice in Sunni Islam.
It also indicates that restoring this relationship is a priority to Pope Francis. Recalling the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate last year, he indicated in his message for the World Day of Peace in January that Nostra Aetate was “emblematic of the new relationship of dialogue, solidarity and accompaniment which the Church sought to awaken within the human family.”
To understand the significance of this move, it helps to understand a little background.
After the Second Vatican Council, the Secretariat for non-Christians, which later become the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, exchanged visits and was engaged in dialogue with al-Azhar University.
However, on 20 January 2011 the Islamic Research Academy of al-Azhar University broke off dialogue with the Vatican. The remarks of Pope Benedict XVI in his address at the University of Regensburg on 12 September 2006 and his call in 2011 for the protection of Coptic Christians who were under attack in Egypt were not well received at al-Azhar.
The address in Regensburg was looked upon as offensive and the call to protect Coptic Christians was seen as interference in the internal affairs of Egypt during a particularly tumultuous time. As a result, contact and dialogue between al-Azhar and the Vatican were broken off.
But on 23 May 2016, Ahmad el-Tayeb, the Sheikh al-Azhar, made an official visit to Pope Francis at the Vatican. The visit received broad media coverage and Pope Francis’ “dialogue of friendship” was evident.
Now, only a few weeks later, it appears that initial dialogue has born fruit, and it is quickly ripening.
It is a very happy and hopeful event.