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Pope Francis greets Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb at the Vatican, Nov. 15, 2019.Photo courtesy of Vatican Media

PARIS (LifeSiteNews) — An unexpected false note marred the third anniversary of the signing of the Document on Human Fraternity in Abu Dhabi by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb.  

While “Human Fraternity Day” celebrations were in full swing, the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, the unofficial daily of the French episcopate, published a story this Friday that questioned the “liberalism” of Al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. The article was deemed important enough to be translated and posted online on the English-language news site of La Croix, 

Under the title “The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar: A Peek Behind the Curtain,” journalist Mélanie Le Priol noted that the Pope’s Muslim co-signatory, “the main representative of Sunnism,” has been “cast as a moderate through his close association with Pope Francis, but the sheikh has not abandoned his anti-liberal line.” 

The implications are staggering. As doubt is cast on the commitment of the Islamic leader to religious tolerance (which Pope Francis consistently promotes), either al-Tayeb is being accused of insincerity, or Pope Francis is being portrayed as naïve – or a mixture of the two. 

Remember the most shocking assertion of the Abu Dhabi Document: it proclaims that the “diversity of religions” was “willed by God in his wisdom.” This statement is relativistic because it proclaims that God is pleased by the false religions existing alongside the one true religion and has “willed” their believers to live in error – or, to put it another way, that there is not one true religion compared with which all those that contradict it are false, but that all religious present facets of the worship he desires. 

If this statement is unacceptable from a Catholic point of view (even if the Pope did sign it), it is no more acceptable from the Islamic perspective that not only considers Islam to be the only true religion but also finds no place in Allah’s paradise for “unbelievers” and tasks all Muslims with submitting the whole world to Islam’s dominion. 

Now La Croix is telling us that the institution represented by the Grand Imam who signed the Abu Dhabi Document, while rejecting present-day implementation of some aspects of Islam, such as its “juridical-religious rules related to slavery,” is in fact very much in line with an “integral vision of Islam according to which the first centuries are considered a given, without discussion, inherited, and outside of history.” 

This is indeed the Muslim perspective, which has no place for the interpretation or historic criticism and analysis of its “uncreated” source, the book of the Koran, and which still relies on the careful examination of the “hadiths” – the collection of Mohammed’s every deed and word – to define correct conduct in every aspect of life. 

Mélanie Le Priol’s article is surprisingly candid about Al-Azhar and its Grand Imam’s attachment to “traditional Islam,” and Al-Tayeb’s presentation as the Sunni “counterpart” of the Catholic pope (whose liberalism, she seems to be saying, is quite beyond suspicion). This is all the more startling because La Croix is extremely supportive of Pope Francis and his liberal positions. 

She points out that “Al-Azhar, the thousand-year-old institution to which this 76-year-old Egyptian was appointed grand imam in 2010, is the most influential Sunni authority in the world,” that had in 2006 reproached Benedict XVI for his Regensburg address on the relations between Catholicism and Islam. Al-Azhar broke off all relations with the Holy See at the time, recalls Le Priol: the dispute would be resolved by Pope Francis who met Al-Tayeb several times before the 2019 Abu Dhabi event. 

She also recalls that Al-Azhar published a declaration on “fundamental freedoms” in 2012 that “highlights the concept of ‘citizenship,’ even for non-Muslims. But she adds that neither this declaration, nor the Abu Dhabi Document co-signed with the Pope, for all their promotion of “an Islam of openness,” “has changed the traditional position of Al-Azhar.” 

She reports that even if the Sunni university “has always prided itself on maintaining a middle position between two ‘excesses,’ Salafist extremism and Western-style modernity,” it promotes “quite limited” freedoms, according to a promoter of interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims, Michele Brignone, the executive director of the Oasis Foundation. 

Muslims, Christians, and Jews may practice their religion in Egypt, but the conversion of Egyptian Muslims to Christianity or to Judaism is against the law. For Al-Azhar, this is not a problem. 

In fact, it may well be because Pope Francis has said, and still says, that all people should be considered as brothers and sisters whatever their culture and religion that the Grand Imam co-signed the Abu Dhabi Document:  no one is asking Muslims to convert to Christ! 

This was not a question raised by Mélanie Le Priol, but she did ask: “What is preventing Al-Azhar University from embracing a more liberal Islam?” One answer, she writes, lies in “the personality of its great imam, whose convictions are faithfully reflected in the official speeches of the institution.” Quoting Brignone, she mentioned “the sheikh’s distrust of external influences and ‘cultural colonialism’.” 

In a recent television interview, she recalled, Al-Tayeb said: “Look at Europe; is it still Christian? Is it still moral? That’s what opening up leads to.” 

All this leads to a question: why is this traditional Muslim leader opening up to interfaith dialogue and making such a show of friendship with the leader of the Catholic Church? 

The answer could lie in “taqiya,” the concealing of one’s beliefs, opinions, and aims from non-believers in order to further the advancement of Islam in countries where it does not have the upper hand. 

At the same time, from another perspective, it could be an episode of the worldwide “aggiornamento” of traditional faiths that need to reject the belief in one true religion in order to fit more easily into the global spirituality that is being established as a form of humanist fraternity where all beliefs are welcome and not exclusive of each other. 

While Al-Tayeb is widely commended for his repeated calls for a “moderate Islam,” it should also be remembered that in February 2015, it was he who called for the fighters of Daesh, the “Islamic State,” to be “killed, crucified and have their arms and legs cut off… according to the teachings of the Koran.” 

This was not widely commented on at the time, but things may be changing as even La Croix realizes that Islamic interfaith partners are perhaps not always all they seem to be. 

As to Pope Francis, he has not changed his point of view. In a video message released to mark the 2nd International Day of Human Fraternity organized by the Higher Commission for Human Fraternity and the UN, he repeated his by now well-known mantras about “fraternity” as “one of the fundamental and universal values that ought to undergird relationships between peoples,” with the conviction that we are all children of the same God. 

Apart from the fact that Islam can in no way consider God as a “Father,” the pontiff’s speech made no mention of Jesus, or the most Holy Trinity, and instead insisted on “diversity:” 

“We all live under the same heaven and, in the name of God, we who are his creatures must acknowledge that we are brothers and sisters. As believers from different religious traditions, we have a role to play. What is that role? To help our brothers and sisters raise their eyes and their prayers to heaven. Let us raise our eyes to heaven, because whoever worships God with a sincere heart also loves his or her neighbor. Fraternity makes us open to the Father of all and enables us to see others as our brothers or sisters, to share life, to support one another and to love and come to know others. 

“We all live under the same heaven. Now is the fitting time to journey together, believers and all people of good will. Do not leave it to tomorrow or an uncertain future. Now is the fitting time to journey together: believers and all people of good will, together. This is a good day to extend a hand, to celebrate our unity in diversity – unity, not uniformity, unity in diversity – in order to say to the communities and societies in which we live that the time of fraternity has arrived. All together, for it is essential to live in solidarity with one another. For this reason, I repeat, now is not a time for indifference: either we are brothers and sisters, or everything falls apart. This is not to be melodramatic; it is the truth! Either we are brothers and sisters, or everything falls apart. We see this in the little wars, in this third world war now being fought piecemeal, as peoples are destroyed, as children go hungry, as their opportunities for education decline… It is destruction. Either we are brothers and sisters, or everything falls apart.” 

In these words, the concept truth disappears behind the wants and needs of men, who need to live as “brothers” for the good, not of their souls and redemption, but for our earthly home. 

The Pope also declared: 

“The path of fraternity is long and challenging, it is a difficult path, yet it is the anchor of salvation for humanity.” 

But what salvation is that? Surely not the salvation that was obtained at the price of every drop of our Savior’s Precious Blood, which infinitely transcends “human fraternity”! 

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Jeanne Smits has worked as a journalist in France since 1987 after obtaining a Master of Arts in Law. She formerly directed the French daily Présent and was editor-in-chief of an all-internet French-speaking news site called She writes regularly for a number of Catholic journals (Monde & vie, L’Homme nouveau, Reconquête…) and runs a personal pro-life blog. In addition, she is often invited to radio and TV shows on alternative media. She is vice-president of the Christian and French defense association “AGRIF.” She is the French translator of The Dictator Pope by Henry Sire and Christus Vincit by Bishop Schneider, and recently contributed to the Bref examen critique de la communion dans la main about Communion in the hand. She is married and has three children, and lives near Paris.