Why events surrounding Pope Francis’s UAE visit were so important

I attended the events in Abu Dhabi with the clear recognition of the fact that just a century ago, the papal visit, the declaration and the conference, with its stated purpose, could not even have been imagined.
Sunday 17/02/2019
Historic moment. Pope Francis greets the crowd ahead of leading mass for an estimated 170,000 Catholics at the Zayed Sports City Stadium, February 5. (AFP)
Historic moment. Pope Francis greets the crowd ahead of leading mass for an estimated 170,000 Catholics at the Zayed Sports City Stadium, February 5. (AFP)

I recently delivered one of the opening addresses at a conference in Abu Dhabi dedicated to creating understanding and building relationships and mutual respect among the world’s religious leaders.

The conference coincided with Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United Arab Emirates and his signing with Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb of a document committing them both to working to build “Human Fraternity.”

I was pleased to have had the opportunity to participate in these events because if I had to rely on the Washington Post’s non-account of the pope’s visit I would never have understood the significance of what transpired over those three historic days.

The New York Times was the only US daily newspaper to cover the visit and its treatment was mostly fair. The Times addressed the importance of the visit while still insisting on seeing the combination of the pope and the United Arab Emirates as convenient pegs for remarks about the UAE’s opulence, the war in Yemen, the Roman Catholic church’s sex abuse problem and Francis’s conflicts with his conservative opposition.

Those are all important issues and should be reported (or it may be more correct to say “have been covered many times over”) but certainly not at the expense of diluting the importance of what was unfolding during Francis’s visit.

The pope went to the Arabian Peninsula to a Muslim country to celebrate mass in a stadium with 35,000 in attendance inside the stadium and more than 100,000 assembled outside. This was too big and too historic to be dismissed, as some suggested, as a PR stunt by the United Arab Emirates to burnish its image as a tolerant society that promotes religious freedom or as a way for the pope to distract attention from the church’s sex abuse scandal.

How big was it? Just ask the Emirates’ nearly 1 million Catholics. For them, it was not only the excitement of seeing their beloved Francis, it was a validation of their faith and as a clear a message as could be sent that freedom of religion is secure in the United Arab Emirates. What they found especially heartening was the fact that UAE government ministers attended the mass and exchanged with others the “kiss of peace” as a gesture of solidarity.

These weren’t the first such signs of respect shown by the UAE for the Christian community. In the mid-1960s Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan built the first church for Catholic expats in Abu Dhabi. There are currently 40 churches and, in addition to Catholics, there are Protestants, Orthodox and Evangelicals. UAE officials frequently attend services on Christmas and other special events. In the face of growing concerns with extremism and violence against Christians, the pope’s visit and the reaffirmation of official support for the community were deeply affirming.

On the day before the mass in Zayed Stadium, Francis and Tayeb signed the “Document on Human Fraternity.” In that document, both clerics called on their co-religionists to “stop using religion to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism and to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression.”

Before signing the declaration, Tayeb urged countries in the region to “continue to embrace your brothers from Christian sects everywhere, as they are our partners in the homeland.” Christians, he added, should not be viewed as “minorities” but as equal citizens.

In his remarks, Francis not only spoke out against the scourge of war, specifically mentioning the devastating conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya, he also echoed the grand imam’s call for “societies where people of different beliefs have the same rights of citizenship.”

The declaration affirms this point, saying: “The concept of citizenship is based on equality of rights and duties, under which all enjoy justice. It is therefore crucial to establish in our societies the concept of full citizenship and reject the discriminatory use of the term “minorities,” which engenders feelings of isolation and inferiority.”

There is no doubt that these two prominent figures meeting and committing to work to promote religious freedom, mutual respect and full inclusion of all faiths as equal citizens in their countries can have an effect. However, the “icing on the cake” was the 2-day Conference on Human Fraternity, a gathering of 600 religious leaders and opinion shapers that concluded with the meeting of Francis and Tayeb. Among the participants were Christians of all denominations, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains.

There have been many interfaith sessions in the United Arab Emirates involving the three Abrahamic faiths. This most recent effort, however, was more expansive and its rhetoric bolder in scope. It was about finding the common ground and respect necessary to build a human family.

The very fact of the meeting was historic. In the face of disturbing worldwide evidence of intolerance and violence born of hatred and with some groups turning religion into a rigid political ideology or weaponising religion into a tool of repression or war, the conference presented a direct challenge to extremists everywhere.

Some Western observers have made light of these gatherings or have been cynical about the Emirates’ creation of a Ministry of Tolerance or the UAE declaring this to be an official “Year of Tolerance.” In my remarks at the opening of the conference, I questioned the arrogance that is at the root of this cynicism.

“All of us,” I said, “East and West, are facing similar challenges. No country is immune and no society or faith community is innocent. There are Christian fundamentalists, Muslim extremists, Jewish extremists and Hindu nationalists.

“There are some in the West who point an accusing finger at the East and, to be sure, there are problems to point at: Ethnic and religious minority communities have been targets for violence and victims of discrimination, their labour is exploited, their human rights are denied.

“But, with Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, homophobic hate crimes increasing in the US and Europe, with incidents of racially motivated violence occurring with disturbing frequency in the US, we need to do less finger-pointing and more looking at ourselves and then turn not on each other but to each other and understand that we share a common problem and can benefit from working together to find solutions.

“And so I begin by asking us to approach this engagement with humility, recognising the truth behind the delightful Italian proverb that says ‘everyone has their own fleas.’”

I attended the events in Abu Dhabi with the clear recognition of the fact that just a century ago, the papal visit, the declaration and the conference, with its stated purpose, could not even have been imagined.

One of my favourite theologians, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, had a remarkable way of seeing the unfolding of human history and the expansion of human consciousness and collective self-awareness. In looking at the mess we see in today’s world, Teilhard would caution us not to despair. It’s not that things are worse than they’ve ever been, it’s just that we are more aware than ever of the injustice, bigotry, the violence and pain we cause one another.

At the same time, this expanding awareness of the world has given rise to a new consciousness that has led us to create vehicles for change that never existed before to promote universal human rights, advance health care and protect the environment.

In light of this, I think about Tayeb working with former US President Jimmy Carter to cure diseases in Africa or Lamia Makkar, a young Egyptian-American high school girl in the Emirates, working with her friends to raise money to build a school in Haiti.

Even imagining actions of this sort would have been impossible a century ago. Now, large and small, they are happening every day, in every place. They are clear evidence of the expanded global consciousness that is transforming our human relationships. That was why the papal visit and the coming together of religious leaders were so important.

Of course, one visit, one declaration and conference will not produce the change we need but they do serve to continue the expansion of our awareness of each other and to build the relationships we will need to create the human fraternity that Pope Francis and Grand Imam Tayeb envisioned in their statement.