Pope meets top Sunni Muslim cleric, days after saying Christians guilty of 'conquest'

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Pope Francis talks with Sheikh Ahmed Muhammad Al-Tayyib (L), Egyptian Imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque and Al-Azhar University, at the Vatican May 23, 2016. | REUTERS/Max Rossi

ROME (Christian Examiner) – Pope Francis and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Muhammad Al-Tayyib met on Monday in what the Vatican is calling a "breakthrough" in Catholic-Muslim relations, the Vatican News Service has reported.

In a meeting that lasted only 30 minutes, Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican's press office, said that pope and the imam called attention to "the great significance of this new meeting in the framework of the dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam."

According to Lombardi, the leaders of the two faiths "discussed the common commitment of the [religious] authorities and the faithful of the great religions for peace in the world, the rejection of violence and terrorism, the situation of Christians in the context of conflicts and tensions in the Middle East and their protection."

Pope Francis also presented the imam with a copy of his most recent encyclical, Laudato si, as well as a medallion featuring "the olive tree of peace."

Just how close the relationship between the two faith leaders will become remains to be seen, but Francis appears to have softened the church's stance significantly on Islam – including drawing a comparison between the legacy of Islamic conquest and, of all things, the Great Commission.

Catholic Herald, a UK publication, notes that in during a recent interview with La Croix (a French Catholic) publication, Francis was conciliatory.

"I sometimes dread the tone," Francis said, when people discuss Europe's "Christian roots."

"It is true that the idea of conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam," Francis said, adding that Christianity could also be "triumphalist."

"It is also possible to interpret the objective in Matthew's Gospel, where Jesus sends his disciples to all nations, in terms of the same idea of conquest," the pontiff said.

He also claimed the church should look into how the democracy had been foisted upon the world.

"In the face of Islamic terrorism, it would therefore be better to question ourselves about the way an overly Western model of democracy has been exported to countries such as Iraq, where a strong government previously existed. Or in Libya, where a tribal structure exists. We cannot advance without taking these cultures into account. As a Libyan said recently, 'We used to have one Gaddafi, now we have fifty,'" Francis told La Croix.

The Vatican described Pope Francis's meeting with the top Sunni cleric in the world as "very cordial."

The pontiff, the Catholic News Agency reported, was overheard speculating how the meeting would be perceived.

"Our meeting is the message," the pontiff said.

Some clarification may be in order, though. Several commentators have blasted Pope Francis for the meeting. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones even featured a sensationalist headline on his Infowars website that said, "Pope Francis Converts to Islam!"