Pope Francis embraced the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque at the Vatican on Monday in a historic encounter both sides hope will lead to greater understanding and dialogue between the two faiths.

The first Vatican meeting between the leader of the world’s Catholics and the highest authority in Sunni Islam marks the culmination of a significant improvement in relations between the two faiths since Francis took office in 2013.

“Our meeting is the message,” Francis said in a brief comment at the start of his meeting with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, shortly after he had hugged and kissed his guest, Vatican officials told a small pool of reporters covering the event.

In a statement on the trip, Al-Azhar, an institution that also comprises a prestigious seat of learning, said the two sides had agreed to convene a “peace conference”.

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