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Pope greets grand imam of Al-Azhar in key meet

Pope Francis welcomed and embraced the grand imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque at the Vatican, signalizing solidarity between Catholics and Sunni Muslims. "Our meeting is the message," Francis told reporters.

Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib on Monday became the first head of the Cairo mosque to visit the pope at the Vatican.

The grand imam leads the prestigious center of learning in Egypt, considered by many to be the highest authority in the

Sunni version of Islam.

Francis and El-Tayyib talked privately around 30 minutes in a "very cordial" meeting, Vatican said in a statement.

The two religious leaders "mainly addressed the common challenges" including world peace, rejecting violence and terrorism, and protection of Christians in the Middle East, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.

After the meet in the pope's library, Francis and El-Tayyib embraced and exchanged kisses. The pope also presented the guest with a peace medal. However, Francis addressed reporters only briefly, saying that the "meeting is the message."

Imam heading to Paris

The grand imam Al-Azhar Mosque only announced he would fly to Rome last week, saying he expected the invitation to "explore efforts to spread peace and co-existence."

Ahead of the meeting, imam's deputy Abbas Shuman said that El-Tayyib sought to promote "true Islam and to correct misunderstandings created by extremist terrorist groups."

"He encourages countries not to deal with their Muslim citizens as groups that present a threat," Shuman said. "And he encourages Muslims in Western society to meld with their societies... it is a message for both sides."

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After leaving Vatican, the Sunni religious leader is set to take part in a Muslim-Catholic conference in Paris.

'Respect' for other religions

Relations between Sunni Muslims and Catholics have been strained during the reign of the previous pope, Benedict XVI. The now-retired pontiff

made a controversial speech in 2006

where he quoted a Byzantine emperor as saying some of the Prophet Muhammad's teachings were "evil and inhuman."

Francis' predecessor also clashed with the Al-Azhar Mosque in 2011, demanding greater protection for Christians in Egypt after a bombing killed 21 worshipers in a Coptic Church in Alexandria.

In response, the Islamic center froze relations with the Vatican, citing repeated insults towards Islam. However, the ties between the two religious institutions have thawed since Pope Francis took the helm in 2013.

In an interview last year, El-Tayyib praised Francis' "new course" and described the pope as a "person that carries respect for other religions and problems of the poor in his heart."

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