Pope Francis left the UAE Tuesday after a landmark three-day visit – the pope’s first to the Arabian Peninsula.
Before the pope’s departure to Rome a holy mass was held at Zayed Sports City Stadium in the capital Abu Dhabi in the attendance of some 120,000 Christians residing in the UAE. A few other thousands flocked from neighbouring Gulf countries – now inhabited by millions of Christians – to attend the mass.
The pope had received an invitation from Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed to visit the UAE – which prides itself in being a leading Gulf country in religious diversity and tolerance – to attend a meeting with members of the Muslim Council of Elders headed by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The summit was followed by the International Interfaith Meeting at the Founder’s Memorial where the Human Fraternity Document was signed between Al-Tayeb and Pope Francis.
The document seeks to encourage fraternal relationships between people, bring an end to conflicts and help the poorest in society. At the Human Fraternity Summit, Al-Tayeb called on Muslims to protect Christian communities in the Middle East and Muslims in the West to integrate into their communities. “You are part of this nation... You are not minorities,” he told Christians.
At the summit Pope Francis said that the two religious leaders chose to meet in Abu Dhabi to encourage a model that fosters religious tolerance and fraternity at a time millions of people around the world were subjected to sectarianism. The UAE was a meeting point for diverse civilisations and cultures, he added.
The Abu Dhabi crown prince lavishly received Pope Francis and Sheikh Al-Tayeb, tweeting “we are honoured to welcome our state guests, Pope Francis head of the Catholic Church [and] Dr Ahmad Al-Tayeb Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif. The flourishing of love, tolerance is a tribute to this blessed land and Sheikh Zayed’s vision of the UAE as an oasis of human coexistence.”
Many Christian leaders had hoped the pope’s visit to the UAE would ease restrictions on building churches in neighbouring Gulf countries.
Building churches is not restricted in the UAE, about a million Catholics live, according to unofficial estimates. Most of them come from the Philippines and India.
Churches belonging to different Christian denominations are built in Abu Dhabi as well.
The UAE has long had ties with Christian leaderships, such as the strong relationship between late Sheikh Zayed Al-Nahyan, founder of the UAE and late Coptic Pope Shenouda III.
Despite an array of topics anticipated to be discussed during the pope’s visit to the UAE, such as easing restrictions on building churches in Gulf states, the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen and its looming famine was believed to feature high on the pope’s agenda.
“I’ve followed with great concern the humanitarian crisis in Yemen,” the pontiff said from the balcony of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican one hour before departing to Abu Dhabi, adding: “The population is exhausted by the long conflict and many children are suffering from hunger, but are unable to access food supplies... I call on the parties involved and the international community to urgently observe the agreements and assure the distribution of food and work for the good of the population.”
He continued: “Let us pray strongly because they are children who are hungry, who are thirsty, they don’t have medicine and they are in danger of death.”
The UAE has been known for decades for its humanitarian and developmental role in the Arab world, which has expanded to African and Asian nations.
The pope, however, didn’t publicly mention the war the UAE is fighting alongside Saudi Arabia as part of the Arab Coalition against Yemen’s Houthi rebels backed by Tehran, though Iran denies such support.
The pontiff is known for his strong condemnation of wars and support of the poor. He vehemently condemned European currents that reject immigrants. He also pressured conservative churches into doing more work for legal and illegal immigrants. In addition, he makes no secret of his progressive views regarding sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church, a matter long considered a taboo.
Nevertheless, the pope has a diplomatic approach. For instance, he didn’t outright condemn Burma for the displacement and mass killings of Rohingya Muslims in the northwest of the country.
Some observers believe it is futile to embarrass governments through condemnation if a course of action can be adopted to stop the suffering of millions of people.
“It is only natural for the pope to bring into discussion all the matters of concern to the Vatican, but he wouldn’t embarrass any government if a political settlement can be reached to end conflicts,” said Said Al-Lawendi, a political researcher at Al-Ahram specialising in European affairs.
“The pope visited numerous countries with complex issues and crises. The lives of millions of people can be improved if these problems are approached seriously.
“It is in no one’s interest to condemn the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Houthis or the legitimate government in Yemen if the goal is to stop the war and for Yemenis to resume their normal lives,” added Al-Lawendi, who believes the recent Stockholm agreement is a step in the right direction.
The accord was signed 13 December between the internationally recognised Yemeni government and the Houthis to cease fire in the port city of Hodeida. The agreement wouldn’t have been reached without the approval of the Arab Coalition and Yemeni authorities, said Al-Lawendi, which is why it was important to support the agreement and those who allowed it to happen.
“The UAE and Saudi Arabia have long wanted to exit that unwinnable war, which is why it was wise on the pope’s part not to discuss the case in public,” stated Al-Lawendi.
Other observers believe the Vatican wishes to maintain the spirit of tolerance prevailing in the UAE and spread it to other Arab and Islamic countries and that it was not advisable to embarrass any country that has started “the difficult way out” of war.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Interfaith summit in the UAE