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Top Muslim Imam to Meet Pope in Vatican

VATICAN CITY – Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the highest seat of religious learning in the Sunni world, will meet Pope Francis in an unprecedented encounter at the Vatican on Monday.

“This audience is being prepared and has been scheduled for Monday,” Father Federico Lombardi, the pontiff’s spokesman told Agence France Presse (AFP) on Thursday, May 19.

“It will be a first,” he added, without giving any further details.

During Monday’s meeting, el-Tayeb will have an audience with the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics at St Peter’s.

The visit marks the restoration of cordial relations between the two faiths after a decade of sour relations.

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Relations between Muslims and the Vatican strained in 2006 after late pope Benedict quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor that everything Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) brought was evil and inhuman.

Benedict had repeatedly said the words did not reflect his personal views but stopped short of a clear apology to Muslims.

The pontiff’s remarks had prompted Al-Azhar, the highest seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, to halt dialogue with the Vatican.

Relations hit new ebb after the pope said Christians in the Middle East were facing persecution following a church attack in Egypt.

At the time, Al-Azhar said it would cut ties with the Vatican over Benedict’s “repeated treatment of Islam in a negative way.”

Francis, who succeeded Benedict in March 2013, has succeeded in relaxing much of the strained relations.