The leader of Islam’s most important university and also the Egyptian mosque by the same name, Al-Azhar, has offered to renew relations with the Vatican. The olive branch came with a note that first Pope Francis should publicly declare that "Islam is a peaceful religion."
In response, a Christian Coptic organization suggested that Muslim leaders are the only ones who can make Islam a peaceful religion, and encouraged the imam to make that happen.
The Muslim world severed ties with the Catholic Church in 2006 after Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned this spring, discussed an incident in which Islam’s prophet, Mohammed, was described as a warmonger who spread evil teachings.
Relations between the two religions resumed a few years later, but were broken off again in 2011, when Pope Benedict publicly denounced the bombing of a church in Alexandria, Egypt. More than 20 people were killed in that bombing, and nearly 100 additional church goers were wounded.
Ahmed al-Tayeb the grand Imam of al-Azhar and the president of al-Azhar University made the overture to Pope Francis through his spokesman Mahmour Abdel Gawad. "The problems that we had were not with the Vatican but with the former pope. Now the doors of Al-Azhar are open," said Gawad.
He made it clear, however, that the first step to re-establishing the relationship had to be taken by the Vatican, when he said, "We are expecting a step forward from him. If in one of his addresses he were to declare that Islam is a peaceful religion, that Muslims are not looking for war or violence, that would be progress in itself."
Given that the break with the Catholic Church was over Islam’s violent persecution of the Christian Copts in Egypt, the Copts understandably suggest that it is wholly within al-Tayeb and his followers’ ability to mend the breach. The Copts are a persecuted minority in Egypt, thousands of whom have recently fled their ancestral Egyptian homeland because of that persecution.
Al-Tayeb had suggested that if Pope Francis intended to visit Egypt to meet with Coptic Pope Tawadros II, the pontiff should also visit with him at al-Azhar.
"At that point, relations and dialogue would be restored immediately," Gawad was quoted as saying.