The Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo telephoned Pope Francis Tuesday to wish him a merry Christmas as well as congratulating him for his 82nd birthday, which was celebrated December 17.
According to a statement from Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Muhammad al-Tayeb wished to extend congratulations to Pope Francis and “Christians all over the world on occasion of the birthday celebration of Jesus Christ on December 25.”
Pope Francis thanked the Grand Imam for his gesture and said he looks forward to meeting him in Abu Dhabi this February.
The two men have met several times before, most importantly when the Pope visited Egypt in April, 2017, on the invitation of the Grand Imam. The pope and the imam spoke at the closing of an international peace conference in Cairo organized by the Al-Azhar University.
In his address, the pope condemned violence perpetrated in the name of God, denouncing attempts to justify violence that “masquerades” as holiness. Not long before the meeting, Egypt had been rocked by two jihadist attacks on Christian churches on Palm Sunday, which left at least 45 dead and 126 injured.
Violence, he said, “is the negation of every authentic religious expression.”
Two months ago, Al-Tayeb traveled to Rome where he met with Pope Francis as well as leaders of the Italian state.
During his meeting with the pope, the imam underscored the importance of cooperation between religious institutions across the world, to spread global peace, and ease the suffering of the poor and underprivileged individuals.
Al-Tayeb said he was pleased to meet with Francis and described the pope as “a tolerant and moderate preacher.”
Both leaders also spoke of enhancing cooperation between the Al-Azhar institution and the Vatican, as well as encouraging a broader dialogue since “the world is in need of communication, not isolation and exclusion.”
Earlier this month, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis will visit Abu Dhabi in February 2019, the first visit by any pope to the Arabian Peninsula.
“In response to the invitation of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, His Holiness Pope Francis will visit Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) from 3 to 5 February 2019, to participate in the International Interfaith Meeting on ‘Human Fraternity,’” said papal spokesman Greg Burke.
The International Interfaith Meeting will also be attended by the Grand Imam of Al Azhar.
Authorities of the United Arab Emirates have reportedly allowed the pope to celebrate Mass “in a public place” for the one-million strong Catholic community in the UAE, a rare exception to a policy banning such events on the Arabian Peninsula.
Ordinarily, Christian religious activities are confined to churches.
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