Pope Francis’ visit to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in February 2019 was a historic visit.

  • It was the first visit by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula.
  • It was the first time a pope and an international Muslim leader co-signed an interreligious document, creating an official Sunni-Catholic platform based on shared values.
  • The cooperation involved in drafting the document and the evident friendship between the two leaders refute the populist claim that our religions are so mired in conflict that their followers cannot come together.
  • The papal Mass with a congregation of 150,000 was the largest-ever act of Christian worship on the Arabian Peninsula.
  • Since the public practice of religions other than Islam is banned in nearby Saudi Arabia, and in the Gulf States is only tolerated and must be done discreetly in buildings with unobtrusive signage, the fact that this Catholic Mass was public, broadcast live on national television, and attended by the Minister for Tolerance, other government officials and 4,000 Muslims made it an unprecedented act of Muslim hospitality to Catholics.

Interreligious Meeting

Pope Francis came to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to “write a new page in the relations between religions”.  His first words to the 400 religious leaders from around the world attending the Interreligious Meeting were, “As-salāmu alaykum!” (“Peace be with you!”).

Pope Francis associated himself with St Francis of Assisi.  800 years ago, at the height of the 5th Crusade, St Francis crossed the no man’s land between the two warring armies on a mission of peace and was received in the camp of Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil.  The Pope said, “I have welcomed the opportunity to come here as a believer thirsting for peace, as a brother seeking peace with the brethren. We are here to desire peace, to promote peace, to be instruments of peace.”

The pope proposed fraternity as the ideal and dialogue as the means to achieve it.  He affirmed respect for the equal dignity of all people, maintaining the integrity of one’s own identity, the avoidance of uniformity or syncretism, and the courage of otherness, the freedom to be different.

He categorically repudiated war, conflict and violence:  “Human fraternity requires of us, as representatives of the world’s religions, the duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word ‘war’.”

He was blunt about the challenge:  “There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future”; and clear about the remedy:  “Each belief system is called to overcome the divide between friends and enemies, in order to take up the perspective of heaven, which embraces persons without privilege or discrimination.”

Document on Human Fraternity

After the Interreligious Meeting, Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayed, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, co-signed the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”.

The opening words declare, “Faith leads a believer to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved”.  In this light, the signatories propose “the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.”

They call on leaders, social agents, intellectuals, artists, media and people everywhere “to rediscover the values of peace, justice, goodness, beauty, human fraternity and coexistence.”

While hailing the advances in science, technology, medicine, industry and welfare, the authors deplore the erosion of moral and spiritual values and the consequent feelings of frustration and desperation that lead to religious and national extremism.  They deplore also the violent conflicts, injustices and inequalities that produce untold numbers of victims, especially children.

Belief in God as the Creator and giver of life establishes the sacredness of life, such that no one has the right to take a life or to threaten or manipulate it in any way, but rather must safeguard it.

The authors declare, “religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood.”  Such actions are a deviation from religion.  They “call upon all concerned to stop using religions 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”.

The Pope and the Imam affirm that:

  • authentic religion promotes peace and harmony;
  • freedom of belief is a God-given right;
  • religious diversity and pluralism is willed by God;
  • interreligious dialogue relieves the social issues weighing on people;
  • protection of places of worship is a religious duty;
  • terrorism is not due to religion and can never by justified by any pretext;
  • full citizenship ensures the equality of rights and duties; and
  • ensuring the rights of women, children and the elderly is a religious obligation.

The authors conclude by affirming the closeness of all peoples, especially believers whom God has created “to understand one another, cooperate with one another and live as brothers and sisters who love one another”.

Papal Mass

The Mass was an exuberant celebration for the Catholics living and working in the UAE.  Pope Francis, himself the son of migrant parents, was at home with this “migrant flock” from many cultures and nations around the world:  “You are a choir composed of numerous nations, languages and rites; a diversity that the Holy Spirit loves and wants to harmonize ever more, in order to make a symphony.”

In his homily, Pope Francis honed in on the core of Christian life: in and through Jesus, knowing that we are the beloved children of God, and living out the joy of this blessedness.   He emphasised service and love in imitation of Jesus.

On living among Muslims, he quoted the instruction of St Francis of Assis to his followers: “Let them not get into arguments or disagreements, but be subject to every human creature out of love for God, and let them profess that they are Christians” (Regula Non Bullata, XVI).

Pope Francis encouraged those present to be peacemakers and to build community:  “I ask for you the grace to preserve peace, unity, to take care of each other, with that beautiful fraternity in which there are no first or second class Christians.”

Conclusion

The achievement and the promise that the papal visit holds for Christian-Muslim relations was cemented by the gift of land for a new church and a new mosque in Abu Dhabi.   The Abu Dhabi Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Pope Francis and Sheikh Tayeb signed the foundation stones.  To symbolize Christian-Muslim relations, the two places of worship will be built side-by-side. They will be named, respectively, the Church of St Francis and the Mosque of Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb.

In union with Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, we pray that Christians and Muslims, other believers in God and all people of good will may indeed “understand one another, cooperate with one another and live as brothers and sisters who love one another.”

Links for further information:

For the Pope’s Speech at the Interreligious Meeting see: http://bit.ly/2U1p0aU

For a comment on the Pope’s Speech see: Gerard O’Connell, Pope Francis to World’s Religious Leaders, 4 February 2019.  http://bit.ly/2Vkm8X7

For the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, 4 February 2019, see: http://bit.ly/2Vf7u3e

For a comment on the Document see: Vatican News, Pope and the Grand Imam. 4 February 2019, http://bit.ly/2IvEfYg

For a pdf of the Document for sharing electronically see Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, tan

For a pdf of the Document for printing, see Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, white

For the Pope’s Homily at Mass in Zayed Sports City see: http://bit.ly/2SVK8mF

For a report on the Mass see:  Gerard O’Connell, Pope Francis Leads Largest Ever Christian Act of Worship in the Arabian Peninsula, 5 February 2019, http://bit.ly/2XjCCAA

Article written for Bridges, No 82, March 2019