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Historic Meeting Marks Thaw in Catholic-Muslim Relations

Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque, talks with Pope Francis during a private audience in the Apostolic Palace, at the Vatican, May 23, 2016.

An historic meeting between Pope Francis and the grand imam of Cairo, Egypt's prestigious Al-Azhar Mosque took place at the Vatican on Monday an indication of a thawing of relations between Catholics and Muslims.

"Our meeting was the message," Francis told reporters at the beginning of the meeting with Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib.

The Vatican said the two men held a "very cordial" private meeting in the pope's private library that lasted about 30 minutes, and ended with a hugely symbolic hug.

El-Tayyib unexpectedly announced last week he would fly to Rome after accepting an invitation from Francis in order to "spread peace and co-existence."

The meeting occurred five years after Al -Azhar suspended talks with the Vatican after tensions mounted during the reign of then-Pope Benedict XVI. The now-retired Benedict delivered a speech in 2006 in which he was perceived to have linked Islam to violence, sparking deadly attacks on Christians.

Muslim-Catholic relations began to thaw in 2013, when el-Tayyib congratulated Francis on his election and expressed hope for renewed cooperation. Francis responded that relations with Islam are a top priority.

El-Tayyib now travels to Paris to open a Muslim-Catholic conference on East-West relations.