Working together is important, there's no doubt about that, but it can also be an excuse for avoiding conversations, of avoiding sharing one's own faith and having it challenged by the encounter. Sometimes people get frustrated at conversations which never seem to go anywhere, have no outcome. All understandable, but Pope Francis suggests that the meeting itself is important and has a message for society. I've often thought that interfaith encounters and interreligious dialogue are, in their own way, a kind of non-violent protest against religious and racial conflict. In a world so characterised by violence the sight of people from different faiths relating to one another, forming bonds of friendship and dialoguing with one another is a witness that things can be different, that we are not enemies but capable of friendship. Interfaith relations are new, we've not been doing it that long and the fact that we can meet together in spite of long histories of conflict is nothing short of a miracle. It's a reversal of how religions have traditionally related and so I'm with the Pope in believing that the encounter itself is a step forward and must surely contribute in a little way to taking the human race further on its journey towards peace. If only the press would publicise this a bit more because there are many such encounters though the high profile ones can attract attention and hopefully inspire others to follow their example.
Of course there have to be difficult conversations but these have to be based on friendship which is at the heart of all interfaith work, I think. It's friendship which helps us avoid confrontational encounters and allows us to be honest with one another, so at home with one another that we can be open about our faith's shortcomings and express our difficulties and concerns. And it's friendship that keeps us talkiing to one another in spite of disagreements and conflicts. For a number of years Al-Azhar and the Vatican were dialogue partners but relations cooled five years ago when Pope Benedict spoke out against the attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt, seen as unwarranted interference in the politics of the country. It's only right that a Pope should protest the persecution of Christians and Pope Francis has done this on many occasions so he's not afraid to speak out. I'm fairly sure he would have spoken about Christian persecution at his meeting with the Grand Imam but he seems to have a knack of moving beyond these tensions to focus on the person, connecting with their humanity and thus laying the ground for honest encounter. The Imam, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb seems to have been pleased that the dialogue had been resumed, calling the Pope 'a man of peace' and describing him as 'a man who respects other religions and shows consideration to their followers'. There's no knowing what exactly passed between these two leaders but surely religious violence, particularly in the Middle East, must have been mentioned. It's hoped the conversation was honest but in a press interview Sheikh el-Tayeb said that conflict in the Middle East "must not be presented as persecution of Christians .... there are more Muslim than Christian victims, and we all suffer this catastrophe together.” I think Pope Francis would agree with these sentiments but I feel sure he would also want to press home the point that that there seems to be overt anti-christian violence to the extent that it's being recognised as genocide by a number of organisations. Perhaps this first meeting wouldn't be the moment to do this but it's important that voices such as that of Sheikh ed-Tayeb speak out against Islamic extremism. Extremists will not listen to anyone outside their faith but if they are to hear an alternative voice it has to come from within Islam itself. The University of Al-Azhar has the prestige and authority to do just that.
This week began the month of Ramadan - a time of fasting but also prayer and almsgiving. There will be some mad people who will show their misguided commitment through increased violence but there will be billions of moderate Muslim men and women praying fervently this month, being faithful to the fast and witnessing to the fact that Islam is a way of peace.
Let's join them in that prayer.