Pope Francis to visit Egypt in April to improve Vatican–Muslim relations

(Reuters/Tony Gentile)Pope Francis gives a blessing in front of the Saint Mary Major Basilica after leading the Holy Rosary in Rome, May 4, 2013.

The Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis will visit Egypt from April 28 to 29, signaling the start of improved dialogue between the parties that had strained relations during Pope Benedict XVI's time.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox church of Alexandria Pope Tawadros II, the grand imam of al-Azhar mosque Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib, and the Roman Catholic Bishops of the country extended the invitation to the pontiff. The Vatican revealed that they have been deliberating the visit in early March.

Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib visited the Vatican in May 2016 in an effort to rekindle the ties between the two nations. His visit is the first meeting between the Pope and an Islamic leader since dialogue were suspended six years ago.

The grand imam of al-Azhar mosque has garnered a reputation for being a diplomatic mediator. Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib frequently engaged in meetings with Pope Tawadros II as well as the officials of the religious Egyptian denominations.

The dialogue between the two countries grew strained starting in 2006, following Pope Benedict XVI's public address in Regensburg Germany. Al-Azhar officials and Muslim communities protested the now-retired pontiff's statements as wrongful associations of terrorism and Islam.

Communication efforts between the Vatican and Egypt officially ceased in 2011 when Pope Benedict XVI appealed for greater protection measures for Christians living in Egypt. His demands were made in response to a New Year's Day bombing in a Catholic church in Alexandria which killed 23 people.

Sunni Muslims account for the majority of Egypt's population, with Christians — particularly Orthodox Copts — making up approximately 10 percent of country's inhabitants.

Since he assumed papacy in 2013, Pope Francis has repeatedly stressed the importance of cultivating interfaith relations. While he called for the end of "genocide" against Christians residing in the Middle East, the pontiff emphasized that equating terrorism with Islam is wrong.

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