‘Our meeting is our message’: Pope Francis hugs top imam during Vatican meeting

Pope Francis greets Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb (R), Egyptian Imam of al-Azhar Mosque at the Vatican, May 23, 2016. © Osservatore Romano
Pope Francis embraced the grand imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque during a historic meeting at the Vatican on Monday, in an encounter which both sides hope will lead to greater understanding and conversation between the two faiths.

The pontiff hugged and kissed Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb – the highest authority in Sunni Islam – during the meeting, with Francis telling reporters, “our meeting is the message.”

That sentiment was echoed by Tayeb, who said, “we need to take a joint stance, hand in hand, to bring happiness to humanity. Divine religions were revealed to make people happy, not to cause them hardship,” according to a statement cited by AFP.

A Vatican spokesperson said the talks between the two religious leaders was “very cordial,” with the imam spending 30 minutes with the pope and just over an hour at St. Peter's Basilica. Spokesman Federico Lombardi said the two had “mainly addressed the common challenges faced by the authorities and faithful of the major religions of the world.”

The pope presented the imam with a copy of his recent encyclical, Laudato Si', a letter to the faithful in which he urges the world to wake up to the threat posed by economic inequality and climate change.

Following the meeting, Al-Azhar Mosque said in a statement that the two sides had agreed to convene later as part of a “peace conference.” The imam's deputy, Abbas Shuman, told Egyptian TV channel CBC that the conference would cover issues of poverty, extremism, and terrorism. The Vatican, however, did not immediately confirm any conference plans.

Tayeb's decision to fly to Rome was announced last week and followed the easing of tensions between the two faiths, which mounted during the reign of Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. The relations soured in September 2006, when Benedict made a speech in which he was perceived to have linked Islam to violence. His words sparked deadly protests in several countries and reprisal attacks on Christians.

Since being elected in 2013, Francis has taken a different path, making a number of conciliatory gestures to the Muslim world.