An inside look at how Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar have revolutionized Catholic-Muslim relations
April 13, 2021
Pope Francis and Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque and university, arrive for an interreligious meeting at the Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 4, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
What inspired Pope Francis and the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, to write the Document on Human Fraternity, which they presented to the world in Abu Dhabi on Feb. 4, 2019? How did they co-write this document given that one lives in the Vatican and the other in Cairo? What is the background story to this first-ever text written by the leader of the Catholic Church and the head of the most prestigious and influential Islamic institute in the world?
The answers to these questions are found in the captivating new book The Pope and the Grand Imam: A Thorny Path, written by Judge Mohamed Abdel Salam. The book, published in Arabic and English, was written with the permission of both religious leaders, each of whom has written a preface for it. The Egyptian-born judge, former counselor and legal advisor to Sheikh Al-Tayyeb and the first Muslim ever to present a papal encyclical (“Fratelli Tutti”), was not only a witness to but also a key actor in the events surrounding the writing and publication of the text.
“I felt it was important to tell the story of the birth of the human fraternity document not only as a historical record but also as an inspiration for the younger generations,” the judge told America in an interview in Rome on April 9, the day after he had presented a copy to Pope Francis.
This fascinating 280-page book will be required reading for anyone interested in Muslim-Christian relations in the 21st century. It reveals the background to the extraordinary fraternal relationship between Pope Francis and Sheikh Al-Tayyeb, a relationship that is without precedent in the history of the world’s two largest religions.
This fascinating 280-page book will be required reading for anyone interested in Muslim-Christian relations in the 21st century.
The author is a married man, a father to three young children and a deeply religious Muslim. He begins the book by presenting himself, his education in Islam and law, and how he was chosen to be the trusted counselor and legal advisor to the grand imam. He summarizes the history of Al-Azhar and of Muslim-Christian relations from the time of the Prophet Mohammed’s first encounter with Christians to the present day.
Judge Abdel Salam provides brief portraits of both leaders that highlight how much they have in common: a simple lifestyle; concern for the poor and young people; the desire to break down barriers between people and nations; the rejection of rigidity, fundamentalism and the use of religion to support violence or terrorism; and the rejection of war and the arms race. Moreover, they deeply respect each other’s faith and view religion as a force for peace in the world.
The judge also recalls that since Sheik Ahmad Al-Tayyeb assumed office as grand imam, he has been thinking about “how to promote truth, justice and the moderation of Islam and how to disseminate the culture of dialogue and tolerance in Egypt and among our brothers across the Arab region and our Muslim world, according to the approach of Al-Azhar.” He notes that Francis, too, has promoted a culture of encounter and dialogue.
From Benedict to Francis
In his book, Judge Abdel Salam recalls that relations between Al-Azhar and the Vatican were effectively frozen when Benedict XVI resigned. They had spiraled downward following Benedict XVI’s Regensburg lecture on Sept. 12, 2006, in which he used a quote from a Byzantine emperor about the Prophet Mohammed that offended Muslims worldwide. Relations with the Vatican worsened again following statements by Benedict after the bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria in January 2011, which were seen as interference in Egypt’s internal affairs. The grand imam had declared “a permanent freeze” on relations with the Vatican.
The judge reports that things began to change with the election of Pope Francis. He shared a significant detail with me that is not in the book, revealing that he was with the grand imam and some friends at Al-Azhar on March 13, 2013, when news of the election of the new pope appeared on his phone. He informed the grand imam, who asked what he knew about the new Catholic leader. When he shared the information he had, the grand imam read both the election and the choice of the name Francis as “positive signs” and said he felt that perhaps relations with the Vatican could change.
The grand imam read both the election and the choice of the name Francis as “positive signs” and said he felt that perhaps relations with the Vatican could change.
Notwithstanding the freeze in relations, Sheikh Al-Tayyeb declared he would send a message of congratulations to the new pope. But not everyone present was in favor of this course of action, and it was agreed that he would instead issue a message of congratulations to the Catholic Church in the name of Al-Azhar and wait for a reaction.
A positive signal came some months later, the judge reports. Pope Francis sent a message of greeting to the grand imam on the advent of Ramadan and called Muslims “brothers.” This pleased the head of Al-Azhar, who “immediately, without hesitation, responded with a message expressing his thanks,” the judge writes.
For almost three years, the grand imam and the judge observed what Francis was doing: They noted his concern for migrants, his focus on the poor, his encyclical on the care of our common home in 2015, his visit with refugees on the island of Lesbos in April 2016 and how he brought back on the plane to Rome 12 Muslim Syrian refugees. They followed his visit to Jordan and Palestine and support of the Palestinean people in May 2014, and his condemnation of the violence in Syria. They noted his refusal in August 2016 to link Islam to terrorism when he was asked why he never referred to Islam when he condemned terrorist attacks. “I think it is not right to identify Islam with terrorism,” the pope replied.
The First Meeting
Judge Abdel Salam recalls in the book how on a November evening in 2015, the grand imam surprised him by saying: “Counsellor, the people’s sufferings cannot be redressed through meetings, discussions, protocol and courtesies alone. We are way too late and cannot wait any longer. Bold steps should be taken towards peace for all humanity. I have decided to visit the Vatican.” He entrusted the counselor with responsibility for arranging the visit, but he also got the approval of Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars for this venture.
As he explains in the book, the judge’s task was facilitated when he made contact with Msgr. Yoannis Lahzi Gaid, the Coptic priest who was then one of the pope’s two private secretaries and also served as his Arabic interpreter. The Egyptian priest and counselor worked together closely from then on.
Francis “greeted the grand imam with great enthusiasm” and accepted the invitation to the peace conference.
Judge Abdel Salam gives a detailed account of that first meeting between Pope Francis and Sheikh al-Tayyeb in the Vatican’s apostolic palace on May 23, 2016. He recalled that on the way to the Vatican he suggested to the grand imam, who had long been concerned about peace, that he should sponsor an international peace conference at Al-Azhar in Cairo with leading figures of the different religions—and invite the pope during their private meeting. Francis “greeted the grand imam with great enthusiasm” and accepted the invitation to the peace conference.
A Historic Embrace
Again, the grand imam entrusted the judge with the task of organizing the peace conference, which was held April 27–28, 2017. The book recalls that Pope Francis and Sheikh al-Tayyeb spoke on the second day and reports that the photo of their embrace went viral throughout the Middle East and beyond. It has become “an icon of hope,” the judge writes.
Six months later, the judge reports, he accompanied the grand imam to Rome for an international meeting, and the pope invited them to the Vatican. After the formal meeting on Nov. 6, 2017, at which Monsignor Yoannis was also present, Pope Francis invited them all for lunch at Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse where he lives.
As they went to lunch, the grand imam spoke to the pope about the crucial work the judge had done in restoring the dialogue between Al-Azhar and the Vatican and then confided to Francis that the young judge “has suffered a lot from bad-intentioned people who have been plotting against him” and revealed that he had advised him “to resume his career in the judiciary to avoid all this trouble.”
After listening attentively, Pope Francis said, “The path of reform is full of thorns and troubles, but God Almighty will protect him.” The judge commented in the book: “I needed to hear these words of support. I needed this motivation to feel some relief in my heart. I was being unfairly criticized and under unrelenting pressure.”
The pope asked the grand imam to pray to God for humanity and peace, and how Sheikh al-Tayyeb, in his turn, asked Francis to pray for the poor, the vulnerable and marginalized.
The book tells how before starting lunch, the pope asked the grand imam to pray to God for humanity and peace, and how Sheikh al-Tayyeb, in his turn, asked Francis to pray for the poor, the vulnerable and marginalized. Next, Judge Abdel Salam writes, “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.”
During that two-and-a-half-hour lunch, the judge proposed that the pope and the grand imam build on the success of the peace conference by writing together a document on human fraternity to provide guidance to all people, especially the younger generations, and to point the path toward tolerance and peace. He proposed they both write and sign it and then together present it to the world. Both leaders liked the idea and gave it their blessing. They entrusted the task of coordinating the project to the judge together with Monsignor Yoannis and insisted that the whole venture be kept confidential until it was completed and ready to be made public.
Drafting the Document
The grand imam started working on a draft text, but he insisted that the judge should not tell the pope that he had written it so that he would feel totally free to change whatever he wished. Judge Abdel Salam gave the draft text to Monsignor Yoannis, who handed it to Francis. The pope revised and amended the text, and the judge took the revised draft to the grand imam, who was truly pleased with the pope’s input. Sheikh al-Tayyeb worked on the second draft, and Francis again gave his input, and so on until the text was finalized. No one outside these four persons knew about the text until it was completed.
While the drafting process was underway, Judge Abdel Salam met Pope Francis again on April 17, 2018, and proposed something that he had already discussed with the grand imam, namely that Francis should visit the Gulf region, starting with the United Arab Emirates, “a country that has chosen the path of tolerance since it was founded” and “has established houses of worship for all the followers of different religions living in the land and supported them without discrimination.”
He explained, moreover, that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi had provided much support for Al-Azhar and the reform and intellectual efforts of the grand imam. He suggested that the pope and the grand imam travel to Abu Dhabi to present to the world the human fraternity document. Francis welcomed the idea but said he needed to consult Vatican officials.
The grand imam started working on a draft text, but he insisted that the judge should not tell the pope that he had written it so that he would feel totally free to change whatever he wished.
The grand imam came to Italy again in October 2018 to receive an academic award from the University of Bologna and, accompanied by the judge, visited Pope Francis. It was their fourth meeting. They discussed the human fraternity document, which they called “our joint project,” and the possibility of launching it in the U.A.E. in February. Francis told Sheikh al-Tayyeb, “I strongly believe in this project and in its importance for the service of humanity.” He and the grand imam agreed on the importance of maintaining the confidentiality of the entire project “to avoid anyone hindering it in any way.”
Not long after they had returned to Cairo, Monsignor Yoannis called the judge and said the pope wanted him to return to Rome, as a decision had been made. Upon Judge Abdel Salam’s arrival at the Vatican, Pope Francis confirmed he would visit the U.A.E. and asked the judge to make the necessary arrangements. The date for the visit was set for Feb. 3 to Feb. 5. After the meeting, the judge phoned the grand imam to inform him, who in turn said he would inform the president of Egypt.
Judge Abdel Salam traveled to Abu Dhabi to inform the authorities there and then returned to Cairo to finalize the details for the visit, including that Francis would also meet the Board of the Muslim Council of Elders at a meeting in Abu Dhabi “to enhance peace in all societies.”
In these last months before the visit, however, the judge said he had to leave Al-Azhar due to “the sudden termination of my mission” there and return to the judiciary “as the legal period of secondment allowed for a judge has come to an end.” On learning this news, Pope Francis decided to award the judge the order of the “Knight Commander with Star,” the highest papal honor ever awarded to a Muslim.
Pope Francis and the grand imam made history when they presented the Document on Human Fraternity in Abu Dhabi.
The judge’s new job, however, allowed him time to complete all the arrangements for the visit. But then both Sheikh al-Tayyeb and Pope Francis were stunned when, on the day he was due to travel to Abu Dhabi for the historic event, the judge was prevented from doing so. He had to remain in Cairo. He does not disclose in the book which authorities blocked him. But the fact that he could not go suggests that there may have been some opposition in Egypt to the work he was doing.
The Pope in Abu Dhabi
As was widely reported at the time, and as the book tells in detail, Pope Francis and the grand imam made history when they presented the Document on Human Fraternity in Abu Dhabi.
Significantly, in their speeches, they both explicitly thanked Judge Abdel Salam, who played a crucial role in bringing that document to birth but had to watch from afar as the two religious leaders signed it. After the ceremony, as they drove back to the palace where they were staying, and before going to dinner with the crown prince, the pope asked Monsignor Yoannis to phone the judge. Francis and Sheikh al-Tayyeb then spoke to him and thanked the judge for all he had done to make this dream come true. It was their way of standing by him.
The book goes on to recount many things that have happened since the Abu Dhabi ceremony, including the establishment of the Abrahamic Family House, a religious complex in Abu Dhabi that includes a mosque, a church and a synagogue; the creation of The Higher Committee for Human Fraternity of which the judge is the secretary general; and the sixth meeting between the pope and the grand imam at the Vatican in November 2019.