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The BBC's Frank Gardner
"Curiously perhaps, the Pope's coming visit is more controversial for inter-Christian relations"
 real 28k

Monday, 21 February, 2000, 19:54 GMT
Pope to meet Egypt's top Imam

Pope John Paul II
A trip to break down religious barriers in Egypt

Pope John Paul II is expected to meet one of the most important leaders in the Muslim faith when he pays the first ever visit by a pontiff to Egypt later this week.

The Pope, who is due in Cairo on Thursday for a 3-day visit, is expected to be received on arrival by the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak.

The effect of the visit will be to deepen love and understanding between people
Catholic Bishop Yohanna Qulta
He will then meet Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed al-Tantawi, who is the Imam of al-Azhar University in Cairo and regarded as the highest authority for the world's Sunni Muslims.

A courtesy call

A spokesman for the Egyptian Catholic Church, Bishop Yohanna Qulta, said the meeting would crown more than 20 years of dialogue between the Vatican and the leading Sunni cleric.

But he went on to stress that it would be just "a courtesy call" and no joint statements would be released.

Sheik al-Tantawi and Bishop Shenouda Egypt's Sunni Muslim and Coptic leaders
"The Vatican has said that this is purely a spiritual journey to make a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai where Moses received the revelation and the Ten Commandments. It has no political motivation," the bishop said.

He added that the Pope's visit would also help remove centuries of inter-Christian misunderstanding between Catholic and Orthodox believers.

"The effect of the visit will be to deepen love and understanding between people and affirm that living together is necessary and important."

Site of burning bush

Pope John Paul is due to visit the Greek Orthodox Saint Catherine's monastery, some 400km south-east of Cairo, at the foot of the mountains of the Sinai desert.

St Catherine's Monastery It is believed Moses met God here
The 1,600-year-old monastery is built at the site where it is believed that God spoke to Moses through the burning bush and gave him the Ten Commandments.

BBC Middle East correspondent Frank Gardner says that even though many of Egypt's estimated 6m Orthodox Christians welcome the Pope's visit, the monks at the monastery have mixed feelings, because they resent any suggestion of unity with the Vatican.

The Pope will hold a planned prayer session outside the monastery walls.

He will be accompanied on the trip by Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, who is the head of the Vatican's interfaith committee.

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See also:
10 Dec 99 |  Middle East
Pope cancels Iraq trip
17 Nov 99 |  Middle East
Pope's Holy Land trip confirmed
18 Jan 00 |  Europe
Pope gathers church leaders in Vatican
24 Dec 99 |  Europe
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31 Oct 99 |  Europe
Pope hails Churches' reconciliation

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