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Pope Francis to Receive Top Sunni Muslim Cleric in Unprecedented Meeting

The Vatican has announced that Pope Francis will meet with the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar, the most prestigious institution in Sunni Islam, in an unprecedented encounter next Monday.

Last February, two Vatican prelates visited al-Azhar University and extended a formal invitation to Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb (pictured above), the Grand Imam, to visit the Vatican and meet with the Pope.

“This audience is being prepared and has been scheduled for Monday,” papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters Thursday. “It will be a first.”

Al-Azhar had broken off its one-time collaboration with the Vatican in 2011, after Pope Benedict XVI spoke out against an attack on Coptic Christians in Alexandria as a reason why it was urgent for governments in the Region to adopt “effective measures for the protection of religious minorities.”

At that time, the Egyptian government recalled its ambassador to the Holy See and the Sunni university decided to suspend all dialogue with the Vatican, also citing Pope Benedict’s 2006 Regensburg speech, in which the pontiff dared reference the historical relationship between Islam and violence.

The prestigious Cairo university is a reference point for the Sunni Muslim world, with a yearly enrolment of some 90,000 students. Al-Azhar University is associated with the Egyptian mosque of the same name, and is one of the chief centers of Islamic learning in the world, known for its ties to Islamic fundamentalism.

It is also alma mater to a number of notorious Sunni clerics, including Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the principle ideologues behind the Muslim brotherhood. Other graduates include several leaders of the Hamas terrorist organization as well as Omar Abdel Rahman, the spiritual leader of the Jamaa al-Islamiyya terrorist group, considered responsible for the Luxor massacre of 1997 that killed 58 foreign tourists and 34 Egyptians.

Al-Tayeb’s predecessor as Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, said that the priorities of Muslims include mastery over “the technology of modern weapons to strengthen and defend the community and faith.”

He added that “mastery over modern weaponry is important to prepare for any eventuality or prejudices of the others, although Islam is a religion of peace.”

As Breitbart News reported earlier this month, Muslim students in Rome can now enroll in Sharia studies at the al-Azhar University to train to become imams through the local “Dar al Salam” mosque.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter   

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