Pope Francis, Vatican.jpg
Photograph: EPA/ANGELO CARCONI

Pope Francis on Monday received the head of Egypt's al-Azhar, the world's foremost seat of Sunni Islamic learning, in an unprecedented visit to the Vatican that appears to draw a line under years of difficult relations between the two institutions.

Francis held a "very cordial" meeting lasting about half an hour with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the Vatican said.

Their discussions focused mainly on the commitment of religious leaders and the faithful to world peace and the rejection of violence and terrorism.

They also considered the situation of Christians amid tensions and conflicts in the Middle East, according to a statement from the Vatican.

Al-Azhar described the meeting as "an unprecedented historic summit" and said that the Pope and al-Tayyeb had agreed to hold a conference on world peace and to re-start a dialogue process between the two institutions.

The meeting underlines a growing rapprochement between the Vatican and Islamic leaders under Pope Francis.

Al-Azhar broke off a previous interfaith dialogue with the Vatican in 2011 in protest at a call by Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, for Middle Eastern governments to take “effective measures for the protection of religious minorities.”

Benedict had been responding to a New Year's Eve bombing of a Coptic church in Egypt's second city, Alexandria, in which 23 Orthodox Christians lost their lives. 

But al-Azhar, which is close to the Egyptian government, followed Cairo's lead in condemning his statement as interference in Egypt's domestic affairs.

Relations between the Vatican and the Islamic world were already sour following a 2006 lecture in which Benedict quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor speaking of Islam in highly pejorative terms.

Benedict's retirement in favour of the more conciliatory Francis has helped improve relations, while developments inside Egypt have also played a part.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who ousted Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi in 2013, has courted the country's Christian minority to an extent unseen for decades, visiting the main Orthodox Cathedral during Christmas mass for two years running.

Al-Sissi, who during his election campaign spoke nostalgically of growing up in an old quarter of Cairo with Christian and Jewish neighbours, has repeatedly called for a "renewal of [Islamic] religious discourse." 

While Sunnis, who make up the vast majority of Muslims worldwide, do not have a hierarchical clergy, al-Azhar's role as the main centre of Sunni learning for centuries gives al-Tayyeb considerable symbolic authority.

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