VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Grand Sheik Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi, one of Sunni Islam’s leading clerics and a supporter of Catholic-Muslim dialogue, died of a heart attack March 10 at the age of 81.
Pope Benedict XVI offered his condolences to the university community and to the sheik’s family in a telegram sent by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state.
The cardinal said the pope “recalls the distinguished figure of this religious leader, who for long years was a valued partner in the dialogue between Muslims and Catholics.”
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told Vatican Radio March 10, “We have lost a friend, because he always showed us great understanding and always welcomed us with great cordiality.”
Tantawi served since 1996 as grand sheik of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, one of the principal centers of Islamic theology for Sunni Muslims. In that position, he welcomed Pope John Paul II to the university in 2000 and helped established a permanent dialogue commission for discussions between university leaders and Vatican officials.
Cardinal Tauran, who was in Cairo for the annual meeting of the commission Feb. 22-23, said that although Tantawi did not participate in the dialogue sessions, he welcomed the commission members and spoke with sorrow about the tensions that broke out between Muslims and Coptic Christians at Christmas.
“He was a man of peace, of dialogue and I am convinced this will be the line of his successor as well,” the cardinal said.