Top Sunni Muslim cleric meets with Pontiff

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Egypt's Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayyeb met Pope Francis in the Vatican on Monday in what has been described as a historic encounter between the two religious leaders, AFP reported.

Pope John-Paul II met the then-grand imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo in 2000, a year before the September 11 attacks on NY transformed relations between the West and the Islamic world. This, after 21 people perished in a bomb attack on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria.

Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb (L), Egyptian Imam of al-Azhar Mosque, at the Vatican May 23.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran (C) receives Ahmad Al-Tayyib (L), the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque, for their meeting with Pope Francis (unseen) at the Vatican, Vatican City, May 23, 2016.

The hugely symbolic visit comes against the backdrop of a recent improvement in relations between the two faiths after serious tensions during the time of Francis' predecessor, Benedict XVI.

The two leaders met for almost a half hour in the Apostolic Palace in what was described by the Vatican as a "very cordial" meeting.

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. 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".

Before Benedict's comments, al-Azhar's relationship with the Vatican had been at its best in centuries.

Following the summit, a session of talks will be held to discuss reactivating the committee between Al Azhar and the Vatican. El-Tayeb chose to accept the invitation to Rome as a result of the numerous conciliatory gestures Francis has made to the Muslim world since being elected in early 2013, according to Al Jazeera news agency.

Since Pope Francis was elected in 2013, relations have steadily improved.

However, while the persecution of Christians has increased in the region, steps had recently been taken toward reopening dialogue.

In an interview last week, he said "the idea of conquest is inherent to the soul of Islam" but added that Christianity had the same missionary goal in its "Great Commission" where Jesus told his apostles to "go and make disciples of all nations".

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