A delegation of four British Imams accompanied by the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, travelled to Rome and held a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican. Although the visit was scheduled long before 22 March, it took place just two weeks after the Westminster terrorist attack. As well as the papal audience, the delegation also met Cardinal Tauran at the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue. Amongst the four British Imams who met the Pope was the founder member and trustee of the national umbrella body ‘British Muslim Forum’, namely Maulana Dr Shahid Raza Naeemi OBE, who has visited the UK Branch of the World Association for Al-Azhar Graduates on numerous occasions and is a senior scholarly leader of the British Muslim community.
Pope Francis told the Imams that listening to each other was essential for the common future of humanity as we walk together in our shared lives. The goal of the visit was to engage in inter-religious dialogue with the Muslim community, allowing both religions to not only speak, but be heard by the neighbouring party, both on the part of the Imams, and Pope Francis and Cardinal Nichols.
Maulana Shahid Raza commented: “This is a historic moment when the two biggest religions in the world, Christians and Muslims, must come together in unity and solidarity for peace. Today we are making history. We bring to you the message of peace and understanding and cooperation.”
Cardinal Nichols stated: “I hope that this moment will help the voice of authentic Islam to be heard clearly. I think at this time Christian-Muslim dialogue is particularly important and in a strange way, Catholic-Muslim dialogue in Britain is very important, because the history of the Catholic community in Britain is one of being a minority and of having lived with 400 years of anti-Catholic prejudice.”
In pursuit of dialogue, last year Pope Francis received in audience at the Vatican the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Dr Ahmad al-Tayyeb Shaykh al-Azhar. On that occasion, the Pope and the Grand Imam noted “the great significance of this new meeting in the framework of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam.” Later this month, Pope Francis will travel to Cairo and will visit the historic Al-Azhar University.
Bakhtyar Pirzada al-Azhari, the vice-president of WAAG UK, commented: “WAAG UK welcomes this specific meeting of scholars and Imams of the UK with Pope Francis in Rome. Dialogue is the need of the hour, and no doubt a meeting of this kind opens up the possibilities of cooperation, understanding and the building of bridges. In a much wider picture, positive steps have been taken over the past few years in developing these ideas of common values and a closer understanding and dialogue between the Vatican and the leading centre of Islam, the Al-Azhar. We pay tribute to Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Dr Ahmad al-Tayyeb, in furthering this important dialogue.”