Next Pope’s chance to improve relations with al-Azhar University

An opportunity for interfaith bridge building arises in light of a recent statement from Al-Azhar University, one of the most important centers for Islamic learning in the world. Al-Azhar hopes that Pope Benedict XVI’s successor will work towards repairing relations between Muslims and Catholics “based on mutual respect and understanding.”

Relations between al-Azhar and the Vatican have been strained under the reign of Pope Benedict XVI, who has been accused by leaders at al-Azhar of frequently portraying Islam in a negative light, most notably in the 2006 Regensburg speech. In January 2011, al-Azhar suspended its dialogue with the Vatican in protest at what it said were “repetitive and negative statements” about Islam. While the soon-to-be former Pope said that his comments did not reflect his personal beliefs, he never offered an apology for his offensive remarks.

Al-Azhar’s offering to reset its dialogue with the Vatican brings into question the future relationship between these two important institutions within Islam and Christianity. With Pope Benedict XVI’s recent resignation, some have started wondering how his successor will interact with al-Azhar and the “Muslim world.”

Several candidates have been rumored to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, one of them being Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. Cardinal Turkson has received criticism for showing a Youtube video at a Vatican conference that warned of the “Islamization” of Europe. While he faced backlash for allegedly being anti-Muslim, Turkson repudiated these charges by referring to his love for Muslims in his family.

Another candidate to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, reached out to Muslims at a recent gathering in Vancouver in which he offered his willingness to find common ground with Islam. Moreover, Cardinal Arinze told a story of his admiration for a Pakistani Muslim man’s wisdom and suggested that Muslims and Christians can be together in heaven.

Nevertheless, Pope Benedict XVI’s successor need not be hostile towards al-Azhar or the “Muslim world.” Engaging in dialogue with al-Azhar is an important building block in strengthening ties between Muslims and Catholics worldwide. Pope Benedict XVI’s successor should accept al-Azhar’s invitation and start a new era in Muslim-Catholic relations.

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