Friday, February 23, 2007

Sunni Visit To Vatican Under Cloud Of Darkness (Cairo/Vatican)

Sheikh Mohamed Said Tantawi, Rector of the Al Azhar Mosque, yesterday denied that he had accepted an invitation to visit the Vatican and said he did not think the time was yet right for him to visit Pope Benedict XVI in Rome.

The Sheikh - one of the most influential Sunni clerics, commanding a wide following among the world’s approximately 1bn Sunni Muslims - was commenting after the Vatican press office in Rome on Wednesday had said Tantawi had accepted the Pope’s invitation.

The invitation had been conveyed by the head of the Vatican’s commission on relations with Muslims, Cardinal Paul Poupard, who visited Cairo earlier this week.In an exclusive interview published Thursday by the state-owned Al Ahram daily, Tantawi said he had not received a formal invitation from the Pope.

He said he did not consider the talks he had held with the Cardinal Poupard and with the ambassador of the Papal Seat to Cairo as amounting to an official invitation.Tantawi said a visit to the Vatican under the present circumstances required much thinking and consultation with the Academy of Islamic Research.He added that it is premature to discuss this subject since he has not yet received a formal invitation from the Pope.

Relations between the Vatican and the Islamic world were strained following a lecture by Pope Benedict in September at the Regensburg University in Germany, deemed offensive to Islam.Al Azhar’s top cleric told Al Ahram that the Vatican had been intensifying its efforts to resume the dialogue with Azhar “to thaw the ice” under which relations between the two institutions have been buried following the Pope’s controversial lecture.

Pope Bendict has tried to mend fences since then, and his visit to Turkey last December - where he visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and bowed his head in prayer side by side with Muslim clerics - was perceived as a major reconciliatory move.However, much as this gesture was appreciated in the Islamic world, many clerics still feel the need for a formal apology.Tantawi told Al Ahram yesterday that he personally hoped things would improve as he acknowledged the pertinent role of religions in creating peace worldwide.

The same sentiment was echoed by a top Azhar official who said that there was a great need for continuing dialogue between Azhar and the Vatican.Al Azhar has a special committee in charge of dialogue with the Vatican which holds annual meetings in Cairo and Rome alternately. This year’s meeting is to be held in Rome on February 24. However, Sheikh Omar Deeb, deputy rector of Azhar, told Ahram that he had refused to travel to Rome to attend the meeting, and that relations between the two institutions have not been restored to normal.

Deeb said that - yielding to much pressure by the Vatican - Azhar agreed to send to the Rome meeting Abdallah Najar, a member of the dialogue committee and also member the Academy of Islamic research.Najar is to carry a written statement by Azhar demanding that the Vatican correct misconceptions about Islam and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Najar will also give a talk before the meeting explaining “the greatness of Islam, its principles and civilisation,” Deeb said. He explained that a great deal will depend on the outcome of the tomorrow’s meeting in Rome.

“I shall wait until I get a report on this meeting,” Deeb told Al Ahram, adding that this report will decide if Azhar “resumes dialogue with Vatican, or continues the present freeze on relations.”

He pointed out that if the Vatican sticks to its present position and ideas, there will be no need for dialogue or visits. – DPA



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