Justin Welby's tireless diplomatic work continued with the latest in a series of meetings with senior leaders of other faiths and politicians today. Following his recent visit to China, the Archbishop of Canterbury is hosting one of Egypt's most senior scholars and clerics – the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, Professor Dr Ahmad Al-Tayyeb.
The Archbishop and Dr Al-Tayyeb held a media briefing at Lambeth Palace today to discuss their joint agenda which includes "a determination to build bridges of peace", in the words of the Archbishop.
Welby has made support for Christians in the Middle East a vocal concern during his tenure and spoke of being "deeply committed to countering the narrative of extremism and terrorism". He reiterated his concern for Coptic believers who have been under threat since the revolution in Egypt which ousted Hosni Mubarak as President and has since seen his successor Mohammed Morsi removed by military intervention. He said, "I will continue to speak in the House of Lords... in advocacy for those who are suffering from the humanitarian disaster in the region."
Coptic Christians are thought to make up around ten per cent of the Egyptian population and are the largest single denomination in the Middle East. It was therefore noteworthy that the Archbishop welcomed Dr Al-Tayyeb as "The most significant of the Muslim leaders we welcome here at Lambeth." Dr Al-Tayyeb, who has been named as the most influential Muslim in the World, said of those who attack Christians, "These people do not represent Egyptian Muslims, these people are terrorists."
The pair united on the need for "prioritising dialogue... whether in the region or worldwide" while Dr Al-Tayyeb said, "Islam teaches us mercy and Christianity teaches us love and peace."
Al-Azhar is an institution which has a history stretching back over a thousand years and incorporates a Mosque, university and other educational institutions. As its Grand Imam, Dr Al Tayyeb holds significant authority in Egypt – not dissimilar to that of the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. Indeed the Anglican Communion and Al-Azhar Al-Sharif have been in dialogue since 2001.
Dr Al-Tayyeb has spoken out against extremism in Islam and was unpopular with the Muslim Brotherhood during its brief rule in Egypt. But he has also made more controversial comments, reportedly criticising the Islamic State, but blaming much of the turmoil in the Middle East on "Zionism" and "new colonialism." Dr Al-Tayyeb responded firmly when asked about these comments: "We need assistance from world powers so that peace can prevail in the Middle East. I don't know who's behind Daesh [Islamic State] and I have no idea where they get their support from... there is a major terrorist organisation that Arabs are paying the price for... the Arabs as well as the world have to work side by side to defeat this organisation. If they are there now they will be elsewhere, maybe the whole world later." The Archbishop added, "What is clear is the need to combine with religious leaders and through political means to defeat this organisation."
The most senior Anglican leader in the region, The Rt Revd Mouneer Anis, Bishop of Jerusalem and the Middle East, was also present to hear Dr Al-Tayyeb say, "If we don't have peace among us as religious leaders then there won't be any peace. For 40 years we have been working for peace with the Anglican church...Muslims and Christian alike have lived alongside for 1400 years..."
Bishop Mouneer said Dr Al-Tayyeb has been the victim of smear campaigns by extremists in Egypt who have accused him of defending Christians too much. "I approached the Grand Imam when I have problems and he has intervened."