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Top Islamic scholars suspend talks with Vatican

January 20, 2011

Egypt’s Al Azhar University, the world’s leading center of Sunni Islamic thought, has suspended talks with the Vatican in protest over the “insulting remarks” by Pope Benedict XVI—a reference to the Pope’s statement that Egypt should protect Coptic Christians from mob violence.

The Pope’s protest against a massacre in Alexandria was “unacceptable interference” in Egypt’s affairs, a spokesman for Al Azhar said. At a January 20 meeting, the spokesman said, the scholars of Al Azhar decided to break off all talks with the Vatican “indefinitely.”

The Islamic leader said that his institution is “still waiting for an apology” from the Pontiff for his remarks about the massacre of Copts and for his comments on Islam in his Regensburg address of 2006. He added that in his January 1 message for the World Day of Peace, in which he condemned violence against Christians, the Pope should also have condemned violence against Muslims in Iraq.

The announcement from Cairo apparently caught Vatican officials by surprise. Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Vatican press office, said that the Vatican remained open to dialogue with any willing Islamic partners.

The rebuff from Al Azhar is a serious blow to hopes for Catholic-Muslim dialogue. The Egyptian institution had been one of the few Islamic centers willing to engage in discussions with the Holy See, joining with Vatican officials in annual talks that had produced joint statements condemning religious violence. Last year, upon the death of the head of Al Azhar, Sheik Mohammend Sayyed Tantawi, Pope Benedict remembered the deceased Islamic leader as "a valued partner in the dialogue between Muslims and Catholics."

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