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The Pope and the Grand Imam: The friendship our world needs right now

Pope Francis (R) receives a gift from Egypt's Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb during a private audience on November 15, 2019 at the Vatican. (AFP)
Pope Francis (R) receives a gift from Egypt's Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb during a private audience on November 15, 2019 at the Vatican. (AFP)
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31 Mar 2021 03:03:47 GMT9
31 Mar 2021 03:03:47 GMT9

The unique friendship and collaboration between Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar is an inspiration and model for all people pursuing peace in our world today, which is mired in conflict, violence, and division.

In my new book, The Pope and the Grand Imam: A Thorny Path, I explore the lives of these two great religious figures and their close friendship, giving a behind-the-scenes look at how the Grand Imam and Pope navigated troubled waters to reach the human fraternity finish line.

As a former advisor to the Grand Imam and the first Arab Muslim to receive the Pope’s highest honor – the Order of Pope Pius IX Knight Commander – I witnessed how this initially delicate relationship was kicked off by the Grand Imam’s first visit to the Vatican, to which Pope Francis responded with a visit to Al-Azhar headquarters in Cairo, Egypt.

The fraternal bond subsequently deepened through several joint meetings, including an intimate dinner at Pope Francis’ home, Casa Santa Marta, where I was in attendance.

As I write in The Pope and the Grand Imam: A Thorny Path, at the dinner, “the Pope picked up a piece of bread and cut it in two halves. He took one half and gave the other half to the Grand Imam, so each of them ate his share, in a symbolic act of coexistence and human fraternity.”

In one of these joint meetings, the idea of signing a document on human fraternity was conceived. I can attest that the birth of what would eventually be called the Document on Human Fraternity was fraught with challenges that were only overcome by the persistence of the two great religious figures and their firm belief in the significance of such Document and its translation into action.

The Document, signed in 2019 in Abu Dhabi under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has caught the attention of the world and has been lauded as providing a framework for global peace.

Both His Holiness Pope Francis and His Eminence the Grand Imam have supported the efforts of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity (HCHF) – where I serve as Secretary-General – which aims to put the values of the Document into practice through various initiatives including the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity and the Abrahamic Family House.

His Holiness Pope Francis and His Eminence the Grand Imam are an inspiration to all of us at the HCHF, and the entire world.  Their acts of human fraternity began long before the signing of the Document – for instance, the Grand Imam established the Egyptian Family House to support Muslim-Christian relations in 2011 and Pope Francis brought 12 Syrian Muslim refugee families from the Greek island of Lesbos to Rome in 2016.

Both the Pope and the Grand Imam have spent many years serving the causes of the needy, the poor, the sick, and refugees around the world out of their sincere sympathy to the pains of the most vulnerable.

Through their several meetings together, they have shown the world the beauty of cooperating instead of fostering repudiation and disunity, displaying humility and joy instead of arrogance and haughtiness, and expressing love and friendship instead of hatred and aggression.

At a time when extremism, violence, and hate threaten to plague our world, we can reveal the secret behind such top-level friendship between the Pope and Grand Imam: their unique friendship lies in their faithfulness, their modesty, and their mutual agreement that the seeds of peace must be sown under all circumstances and in spite of all challenges and barriers that often come across the way of great leaders in all ages.

  • Judge Mohamed Abdelsalam is the Secretary-General of the Higher Committee on Human Fraternity and a judge at the State Council of Egypt.
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