Pope Francis’s visit to the UAE
By any standard, the visit by Roman Catholic Pope Francis to the United Arab Emirates February 3-5 was a historic event.
It was historic in the sense of it being the first such a visit by any Roman Catholic pope to the Arabian Peninsula. The visit swept away the obsolete notion that the region was unwelcoming to other value systems.
The public mass celebrated by the pope in Abu Dhabi was full of potent symbolism. As described by the Associated Press, the event attracted nearly 180,000 people and “drew Catholics from 100 countries, including the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Uganda and Lebanon, reflecting the range of nationalities drawn to the Emirates’ promise of jobs, safety and tolerance.”
The visit provided an occasion for interfaith dialogue with spiritual figures of various religious denominations, including imams, muftis, ministers, rabbis, swamis, Zoroastrian and Sikh leaders, able to sit down and talk.
The dialogue represented, as the pope noted when he returned to Rome, a rejection of the “temptation to see a clash between Christian civilisation and the Islamic one and even to consider religions as a source of conflict.”
The overriding message was that of peace. Pope Francis and al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb led the way in their comments and in the “human fraternity” document they signed.
“We resolutely declare that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood,” said the document.
In a region mired in violent strife and bloodshed, the message could only resonate with the many communities that are in crisis.
Francis pointed out “the time has come” for humanity to promote “the capacity for reconciliation, the vision of hope and the concrete paths of peace.”
He warned that, unless people of different religions came together to promote “concrete paths of peace,” the future of humanity itself would be in doubt.
Tayeb had the merit of sending out a message of inclusiveness at a fraught time. Extremists, with their truncated visions of the world, are trying to exclude — if not annihilate — people of a different faith or even those whose interpretation of the same faith is at variance with their fanatical narrative.
The story of religious minorities in the Middle East — murdered, abused and displaced — illustrates the evils of this fanatical tendency to exclude anyone who is different.
The pope’s visit and the warm welcome he was given sent a reassuring signal to the Middle East’s minorities. They have disproportionately suffered violence and displacement as a result of the Islamic State’s onslaught.
Setting the tone for the way religious minorities should be treated in the region, Tayeb told Muslims: “Continue to embrace your brothers the Christian citizens everywhere, for they are our partners in our nation.”
In his words, there was implicit criticism of the propensity of a large segment of Muslim diasporas in Europe and the United States to look for seclusion in cultural and religious ghettoes.
Tayeb spoke with wisdom and clarity of purpose contrasting with the confrontational tone of demagogues on all sides. He called on Muslims to integrate their host nations in the West and to respect their laws.
He stood up against the advocates of jihadist violence as he highlighted the sanctity of life in Islam.
He also chastised those in the West inclined to exploit the bloody misdeeds of the few to stereotype the entire Muslim community.
Much of the credit for making this ecumenical encounter possible must go to the pope’s Emirati hosts, who are celebrating 2019 as a “Year of Tolerance.” They deserve credit for having the courage to host leaders of all faiths and setting the tone of the needed interfaith debate for the whole region.
The signing ceremony for “the human fraternity” document was attended by more than 400 religious figures and UAE leaders, including UAE Vice-President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
The Abu Dhabi dialogue has highlighted the Arab and Muslim world’s commitment to the cause of peace and religious coexistence even if there is little doubt that building bridges across religious and sectarian divides will be an uphill battle for decades to come.