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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 February 2019

The Grand Imam who shares a vision for peace with Pope Francis

Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb and the Catholic pontiff are embarking on important visits to the UAE

The Pope's first ever visit to the Gulf region will be forever etched in history, but the arrival of the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Al Sharif University, Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, is also of major significance to the UAE's ongoing efforts to forge closer links between all faiths.

Dr Al Tayeb, who also serves as chairman of the Muslim Council of Elders, will take part in interfaith talks alongside Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi on Monday.

Much like the pontiff has been hailed for promoting peace and tolerance across the globe, Dr Al Tayeb has won praise for his pivotal role in spreading the values of Islam and for helping to combat extremism in the Arab world.

Dr Al Tayeb became Grand Imam in 2010, while already head of Al Azhar, a hugely respected Islamic institute.

Al Azhar was founded in Cairo, Egypt in 970 AD and is one of the world's oldest and most renowned seats of learning.

Dr Al Tayeb has a long history of campaigning for peace and has pushed back against extreme interpretations of Islam.

In 2006, he condemned masked Al Azhar University students, who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, after they conducted a military-style parade inside the campus.

Dr Al Tayeb vowed that the university would never again be a breeding ground for extremism.

Pope Francis and Dr Al Tayeb, two men from different religions but with a shared vision for peace, warmly embraced after the pontiff touched down in Abu Dhabi on Sunday night.

It was symbolic of the strengthening ties between Islam and Christianity being celebrated during the papal visit.

The pair formed a strong bond in recent years, helping to repair a fractured relationship between the Vatican and Al Azhar. The influential Cairo institute cut all ties with the Vatican in 2011 because of differences with Pope Francis's predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

Five years later, Pope Francis hosted Dr Al Tayeb at the Vatican to help bring the two sides back together again.

Bringing unity where there was once conflict is an enduring theme of Pope Francis's papacy.

"The message is in the meeting," Pope Francis said at the time, as he stepped up his efforts to build bridges between all faiths.

At the meeting, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam talked about how to solve the problems of violence and terrorism.

From this promising start, mutual respect and common understanding grew.

Pope Francis has since journeyed to Cairo to meet the cleric, with the two men holding further discussions at a subsequent meeting in Rome.

A once-frosty relationship between the Vatican and Al Azhar thawed, thanks to the work of both men. Now Catholic and Muslim leaders can stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity.

In December, the pair held a cordial phone call in which they discussed coexistence and mutual respect.

Pope Francis thanked the Grand Imam for the call, saying he was looking forward to meeting him in Abu Dhabi.

Now the Pope and the Grand Imam will try to plot a course for world peace in the UAE capital.

Updated: February 4, 2019 06:51 PM

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