The al-Azhar Mosque and its companion university are the most prominent institutions of Sunni Islam. Both institutions were founded in the 10th century. In 1961, the university added non-religious curricula.
el-Tayeb has been imam of the al-Azhar Mosque since his 2010 election. He was elected rector of the university in 2003. He is considered a moderate Sunni who has worked to prevent Islamic radicalization.
Father Miguel Ayuso Guixot, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, visited al-Azhar on Feb. 16 and met with the mosque's deputy imam, Abbas Shuman. The Holy See Press Office said the two had a "cordial meeting."
At this meeting, the priest invited the Grand Imam to meet with the Pope at the Vatican.
Among the many reasons this Feb. 16 meeting is noteworthy: al-Azhar had broken relations with the Vatican in 2011.
On Jan. 1 of that year, a major bombing took place in Alexandria. The attack on Coptic Christians killed 23 people.
In an immediate reaction, Benedict XVI labeled the attacks as "terrorism" that "brutally affected worshippers." He characterized the attacks as part of a "strategy of violence" against Christians. He reiterated his concerns in his New Year's speech to the corps of diplomats accredited to the Holy See. He asked protection for religious minorities.
el-Tayeb reacted negatively to these two statements. He blamed Benedict for "interference" in Egyptian internal affairs, which might result in a "negative political reaction" in the East and in Egypt.
Ever since, the Vatican and al-Azhar had no official ties for dialogue. However, Mahmoud Azab, a representative of the Grand Imam, took part in the Vatican launch of the Global Freedom Network, an initiative to counter human trafficking.
Recently, el-Tayeb has launched a multilingual satellite television broadcast. He has begun to revise education curricula in order to advance interreligious dialogue.