Pope Francis started a three-day visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the first for a leader of the Roman Catholic Church in the Arabian Peninsula.
Francis was greeted by Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, on his arrival late on Sunday.
The pontiff will attend the Global Conference on Human Fraternity at the behest of the UAE’s leadership, which has proclaimed 2019 the “Year of Tolerance”, a move scorned by human rights activists.
Along with Saudi Arabia, the UAE is heavily involved in the war in Yemen – dubbed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis – and has a problematic human rights record. The UAE has also imposed an air, land, and sea blockade on Qatar, which has severely affected relations among Gulf countries over the past two years.
Whether Pope Francis will address these issues is not clear, but expectations run high that the pope may do so in private talks with the UAE’s leadership.
The international gathering of religious scholars is aimed at promoting tolerance and peace between the two faiths, said the Muslim Council of Elders organising the event.
Pope Francis is also expected to meet with the Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib, Head of Al Azhar, one of the highest religious authorities in the Muslim world.
On Tuesday, the pope will deliver a mass to about 135,000 worshippers who were able to get a free ticket to attend the celebration at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
“I thank the friend and dear brother the Grand Imam Sheikh al-Tayyib and those who have organised this meeting for the will and courage to affirm that faith in God unites and does not divide us,” said Pope Francis in a video message to the Emirati people.
“I thank God for this opportunity to write, in your land, a new page in the history of the interreligious dialogue, to confirm that we are brothers despite being different,” the pope added.
Dialogue with Islam is one of the main features of Francis’ pontificate, following in the path of some of his predecessors. Pope Paul VI made the first pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1964, and Pope Jean Paul II was the first pope to set foot in a mosque in 2001.
In his six years as pontiff, Francis has conducted 25 trips abroad, out of which 13 were to Muslim countries. From Turkey to Palestine, Egypt to Jordan, Bangladesh to the Central African Republic, the pope has prayed in local mosques with their imams, invoking tolerance and peace between worshippers of the two faiths.
“This is a historic visit. The first time for a pope in Arabia is a milestone in the history of relations between Islam and Christianity,” said Orazio La Rocca, a Vatican expert and author, who has covered the Holy See for over 30 years. The message the pope carries to Abu Dhabi is summed up in his video message, he said.
“In Francis’ greeting to Sheikh al-Tayyib lies the essence of his manifesto: Christians and Muslims are brothers in their faith, and faith never divides. This has been the leitmotiv of his pontificate since its inception in March 2013,” said La Rocca.
A progressive with enemies
The 83-year-old pontiff, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentinian of Italian descent, is considered by many to be a progressive, whose forgiving remarks towards unmarried and divorced couples and homosexuals have infuriated the most conservative branches of the Catholic Church.
In his speeches on global poverty and social injustice, migrations and climate change the pope has tackled some of the most pressing issues of our time.
While his supporters say the pope is just bringing to life the message of the New Testament, his critics have gone to the extent of accusing him of blasphemy. The dialogue with Islam is a bone of contention with his detractors, who have attacked his staunch rejection of any association between religion and terrorism.
“The ultraconservative factions, especially across the Atlantic, are sponsored by lobbies within the Church who abhor not only dialogue with Islam but even with other Christian confessions,” said La Rocca.
According to Father Bernardo Cervellera, director of Asia News, Gulf countries like the UAE, Qatar and Oman where Christians from around the world have come to live and work, show that coexistence between Islam and Christianity in a modern Muslim society is possible.
“The UAE and other Gulf countries set a positive model that can be an example also to neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia, for instance, where to this day Christians are not allowed to practise their faith,” said Cervellera.
Asked whether Muslims and Christians can have a fruitful dialogue nowadays and counter extreme thinking on both sides, Sheikh Ali al-Qaradaghi, secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars told Al Jazeera that dialogue is a necessity.
“The visit of Pope Francis is a positive thing if it leads to a constructive exchange between the two faiths and some tangible outcomes,” said al-Qaradaghi.
“Our region is marked by deep internal divisions and conflicts from Syria to Yemen, and I hope the visit of the pope may lead to some positive result also in this regard.”
2019 has been dubbed the Year of Tolerance, to mark the legacy of the late president and founding father of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan. But today, the country is involved in one of the worst conflicts of our time in neighbouring Yemen, where 18 million people are on the brink of famine.
Middle East Christians
At least one million Christian live in the UAE today where, for over three decades, the late Bishop Bernardo Gremoli has led to the inauguration of some 13 churches across the country, in addition to churches in Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.
Christians in Gulf countries amount to approximately 4 million, but they are mainly economic migrants of different nationalities who stay in the region for a limited amount of time due to tight restrictions on residency.
In the rest of the region, the numbers of communities of indigenous Christians, whose presence dates back centuries, are in decline.
The visit of Francis to the Gulf comes at a time of upheaval for Christian communities in the Middle East.
As a result of the protracted wars and ongoing instability, about 50 percent of all Christians have fled the region over the last five decades, with an acceleration over the past few years following persecutions by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
According to statistics published by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Christians in 2017 in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Egypt and Jordan totalled 14.5 million out of a population of 258 million.
A million Christian Chaldeans have fled Iraq and out of half a million Armenian Catholics, only 50,000 still remain in the Near East. Syrian Orthodox and Catholics have also thinned along with other minority communities such as Yazidis and Shia.