Just before he left for to the U.A.E. earlier this month, Pope Francis sent a video message to the Emirati people: “I thank the friend and dear brother the Grand Imam Sheikh el-Tayyeb and those who have organised this meeting for the will and courage to affirm that faith in God unites and does not divide us.”
What does the Pope know about his “friend and dear brother,” Sheikh al-Tayyeb? In 2011, El-Tayyeb, who was then the President of Al-Azhar University, railed at Pope Benedict for his “interference” in Egypt’s affairs, a reference to Benedict’s denunciation — how dare he? — of attacks on Copts, and warned of a “negative political reaction” to Pope Benedict’s remarks about Islam. The threatening tone was unmistakable. In a statement, Al-Azhar denounced the Pope’s “repeated negative references to Islam and his claims that Muslims persecute those living among them in the Middle East.” This statement was issued as Muslims were not just persecuting but murdering Copts in Egypt, and killing other Christians in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan.
Pope Francis wanted to repair any harm that his predecessor, as he saw it, had caused to Muslim-Christian relations, and he soon extended an invitation to El-Tayyeb to visit him in the Vatican. “I want to meet him. I know that he would like it,” the Pope said during a February 18, 2016 in-flight press conference.