Pope's visit to the UAE a watershed event

In Abu Dhabi, Francis preached values that are under threat by the rise of the extreme right and populism.
Thursday 07/02/2019
Pope Francis (L) greets Egypt's al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb as they arrive at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, February 4. (Vatican Media) 
Pope Francis (L) greets Egypt's al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb as they arrive at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, February 4. (Vatican Media) 

Pope Francis's visit to the United Arab Emirates may bring some sanity and balance in the international and regional landscapes and the way they are managed. The pope arrived in Abu Dhabi carrying high hopes for a region that has been invaded by injustice, violence, destruction and terrorism.

To get an idea about the tremendous depth of the event, look at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the venue for the momentous meeting of “Human Fraternity."

Francis’s decision to visit the UAE was a wise one. In the long history of the Catholic papacy, his was the first visit by a pope to the Arabian Gulf region.

The Emirates' decision to host him was also wise. As the world experiences an onslaught of bigoted and populist slogans, calling for closing borders and building walls between peoples, the UAE event, in its joint Christian and Muslim spiritual dimensions, stands as a turning point that can be relied upon to block the flow of these evil currents.

For the pope to meet for the fourth time with al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb and to meet with members of the Council of Muslim Sages indicate that Christians and Muslims have helped ease the tensions that had affected the relationship between the Vatican and Islam under former Pope Benedict XVI.

The current pope’s assessment swept away any previous hasty and superficial negative evaluation of the history of Islam and its role in human civilisation.

Francis knows that the violence that his predecessor saw in Islam occupied a foggy phase in the history of Christianity. The Middle Ages were known for their fanaticism and extremism and the Inquisition was a service to them.

The Roman Catholic Church has been accused of collusion with Nazism and its renaissance in the world. If the church gets rid of its impurities, then the glass of the church’s windows in this area is clear and does not permit throwing stones at other religions.

In the meeting between Vatican and al-Azhar leaders, there was enough evidence that should have drawn the attention of reformists in the Islamic world -- and in al-Azhar in particular -- to the fact that the church, too, had to purify its texts of passages no longer consistent with the values and rules of modernity. It engaged in a painful internal debate that led to modernisation.

The Vatican has been eliminating a legacy of ideas not suitable for present times. It has become an advocate of the modern values of humanity in its systems of governance, respect for human rights and democracy and a firm stance against Nazism, fascism and racism.

It seemed that standing up to these evils has become a shared responsibility between the Christian Church and contemporary Islam. It also appeared that Islam in the world has an official address and a supreme reference represented by al-Azhar in Egypt. This is a striking sign that today’s Islam is not represented by any other institution in any other Islamic country.

This joint workshop opens another space to fight terrorism beyond security and military mechanisms. If the origin of terrorism was an unenlightened ideology focused on the past, the treatment of the disease requires emptying its jurisprudential, theological and ideological reservoirs.

Since the whole world -- Muslim and Christian alike -- and perhaps even the Muslim more than the Christian one, has suffered tremendously from terrorism, it is time for the Vatican and al-Azhar to cultivate common spiritual fields that have long been neglected by the rules of the 21st century.

The pope made the trip to a country where about 200 nationalities coexist with their different languages, dialects, music, smells, religions and traditions. The UAE's population is predominantly expatriate, including 1 million Christians, living the experience of migration according to the vision of the people of the UAE in a rare experiment in tolerance, moderation and acceptance of the other.

In the UAE, churches have grown just as mosques have and the temples have been built in a variety of ways. This has become the nature of the country. The UAE has become a model that represents a counterpoint to the currents that thrive in the world against immigration and immigrants.

The papal visit to the UAE is a befitting response to US President Donald Trump’s wall on his country's border with Mexico. In Abu Dhabi, Francis preached values that are under threat by the rise of the extreme right and populism. If ethnic, religious and social diversity has been a characteristic feature of the UAE since its founding, Francis preached the values of the UAE as a human experience that ought to be replicated everywhere else.

The pope noted the magnitude of the changes throughout the region towards the elimination of fundamentalism and extremism and a return to moderation. Francis knows how much the model of this moderate Islam has become solidly anchored in the region following the major transformation in Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom has entered an era of social modernity that touches the culture of the individual, of the family and of the institutions of the state. Saudi Arabia is moving from the radical era of Saudi revivalism to an era that the Saudis did not dream of years ago.

The papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula came within the context of this transformation. From the Emirates, the pope was knocking on the doors of the land of the Muslim prophecy. So, nobody will find it unusual and unbecoming if the highest representative of the Christian faith lands one day, and soon, in the heart of the land of Islam.

Pope Francis knows this and has concluded that the region rejects terrorism, that the tale of terrorism is woven by shady international agendas and their evil agencies and not by the celestial books and devout believers.