reported breathlessly Monday that Pope Francis “embraced the grand imam
of Al-Azhar, the prestigious Sunni Muslim center of learning, reopening
an important channel for Catholic-Muslim dialogue after a five-year
lull and at a time of increased Islamic extremist attacks on
Why has there been this “five-year lull”? Because “the Cairo-based
Al-Azhar froze talks with the Vatican to protest comments by then-Pope
Benedict XVI.” What did Benedict say? Andrea Gagliarducci of the Catholic News Agency
explains that after a jihad terrorist murdered 23 Christians in a
church in Alexandria 2011, Benedict decried “terrorism” and the
“strategy of violence” against Christians, and called for the Christians
of the Middle East to be protected.
Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, Ahmed al-Tayeb, whom Pope Francis welcomed to
the Vatican on Monday, was furious. He railed at Benedict for his
“interference” in Egypt’s affairs and warned of a “negative political
reaction” to the Pope’s remarks. In a statement, Al-Azhar denounced
the Pope’s “repeated negative references to Islam and his claims that
Muslims persecute those living among them in the Middle East.” Benedict stood his ground, and that was that.
But in September 2013, al-Azhar announced
that Pope Francis had sent a personal message to al-Tayeb. In it,
according to al-Azhar, Francis declared his respect for Islam and his
desire to achieve “mutual understanding between the world’s Christians
and Muslims in order to build peace and justice.” At the same time, Al
Tayyeb met with the Apostolic Nuncio to Egypt, Mgr. Jean-Paul Gobel, and
told him in no uncertain terms that speaking about Islam in a negative
manner was a “red line” that must not be crossed. So Pope Benedict condemned a jihad attack, one that al-Azhar also condemned, and yet al-Azhar suspended dialogue because of the Pope’s condemnation.
Then Pope Francis wrote to the Grand Imam of al-Azhar affirming his
respect for Islam, and the Grand Imam warned him that criticizing Islam
was a “red line” that he must not cross. That strongly suggests that the
“dialogue” that Pope Francis has now reestablished will not be allowed
to discuss the Muslim persecution of Christians that will escalate
worldwide, especially since an incidence of that persecution led to the
suspension of dialogue in the first place.