The Pope remembered the Grand Imam and Sheikh of al-Azhar University, Dr. Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, after his death on Wednesday. Sheikh Tantawi was instrumental maintaining relations between the Catholic Church and the Muslim world and was the head of the highest Islamic religious authority in Egypt, the al-Azhar.
The Grand Imam and Sheikh died of a heart attack in the airport of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He was in Riyadh for an awards ceremony this week, according to Arab News.
Cardinal Jean-Louis Touran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, described him on Wednesday to Vatican Radio as "a man of peace (and) dialogue," adding that he was "very impressed by his profound humanity."
Sheikh Tantawi was known for his positions against Islamic extremists and terrorism, for denouncing female circumcision and approving laws that opened the door to women in top government positions. For these and other reasons, he was acclaimed by moderate Muslims and decried by fundamentalists, the Associated Press says.
On the Pope's behalf, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone conveyed condolences to the president of the Permanent Committee of al-Azhar for Dialogue among the Monotheistic Religions as well as the family of Sheikh Tantawi.
Cardinal Bertone expressed the "heartfelt and prayerful condolences" of the Pope, who "recalls the distinguished figure of this religious leader, who for long years was a valued partner in the dialogue between Muslims and Catholics."
The Vatican secretary of state conveyed his own grief at the death of the sheikh and he is grateful for the "impulse" the man gave to meetings between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Permanent Committee of Al-Azhar for Dialogue.
The last meeting of the two entities, at which the Sheikh was present, took place at the end of February.
According to Arab News, the Sheikh has already been buried in Medina, the burial place of Muhammed.