VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Muslim leaders expressed hopes the new pope would help improve relations between Muslims and Catholics.

A spokesman for Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, president of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, said he hoped Pope Francis’ election would help normalize relations with the world of Islam.

“We are hoping for better relations with the Vatican after the election of the new pope,” said Mahmoud Azab, adviser to el-Tayeb on interfaith issues, March 13.

Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, a world-renowned center of Sunni Islam scholarship, suspended dialogue with the Vatican in 2011 to protest Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks about anti-Christian violence in Egypt and the need to protect religious minorities there.

Azab told Catholic News Service that the university was pleased with a pope from Latin America, but said it was waiting for “positive signs” before agreeing to resume dialogue with Rome.

“We congratulate the Catholic world and hope to re-enter into dialogue when there are positive signs … which encourage us. It is up to the Vatican,” he told CNS.

He said that Al-Azhar was pleased that a pope had been chosen from Latin America, where religion is strong and “where people live their faith in ways similar to us.”

“With the new pope … we hope to find suitable terrain to work together … for humanity,” Azab said.

Essam el-Erian, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and adviser to President Mohammed Morsi, said the new pope’s election “opens a new and important phase.”

He suggested in a report in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano March 15 that one of the new pope’s tasks should be “to re-establish dialogue with other churches, but especially with Al-Azhar” University.

What the pope says and does will greatly influence the world given that he leads more than 1 billion Catholics around the globe, el-Erian said.

May the new pope “be a turning point in the world (working) on behalf of the poor, human rights, dialogue with the Arab and Islamic world and peace,” el-Erian told the newspaper.

The Arab World Association in Italy sent greetings to the new pope and said America should increase efforts aimed at “promoting peace in the world and in Palestine.”

The Italian Islamic Religious Community expressed joy over the election and said it believed “the new pontificate is a sign of a true opening and universal recognition” toward all monotheistic faith communities. It said it hoped “an authentic spiritual harmony” among these communities would be strengthened.

In addition, the group said it was hopeful that “the fraternal collaboration may be a strong point for a new intellectual and spiritual orientation of humanity and its role in the world.”

It noted the special significance of the pope taking his name from St. Francis of Assisi who, it said, represents “a great example of holiness and openness toward the East and Islam.”

The group also praised the “other great saint,” St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, the pope’s religious order. The Italian Islamic community said St. Ignatius “recalls that sense of seeking to know God, which is at the heart of every true spirituality.”

Rome’s Imam Mohammed Hassen also sent greetings to Pope Francis, saying he hoped for good “relations of dialogue between us and the Vatican for the good of all of humanity. We pray to God that he help carry out this new mission with success.”


Contributing to this story was James Martone in Cairo.