HISTORIC. Pope France was the first pope to visit the Arabian Penninsula when he flew to Abu Dhabi, UAE for an international ‘interfaith’ meeting from February 3 to February 5. MSGR JOHN WYNAND KATENDE finds out the significance.
Pope Francis’ February 3 to February 5 visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been described not only as unprecedented, but also as a landmark in the history of interfaith dialogue. In his own words the Pope said he was visiting the UAE “as a brother, in order to write a page of dialogue together and to travel the paths of peace together.”
The UAE is a federation of seven constituent monarchies. It is dominated by Islam and non-Muslim religions are heavily controlled and restricted. Conversions away from Islam are punishable by death. The Catholic Church in the UAE makes up nearly 10 per cent of the population, numbering some 900,000, all foreigners.
Why he was there
The pontiff was invited to close an interreligious summit titled “Human Fraternity,” with the participation of 700 religious leaders from various religions. It was in line with the UAE’s declaration of 2019 as the “Year of Tolerance.” During his visit, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar signed a joint declaration on Human Fraternity, calling for all concerned parties to promote religious freedom, protect places of worship, and offer citizenship, even to religious minorities.
The joint document sends a powerful message to get rid of the culture of suppression of minorities. On his part, the Pope called Christians to promote peace starting with the community where they live, without renouncing Jesus’ name, and to persevere in the midst of difficulties.
The UAE’s Minister of Tolerance, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, affirmed: “We want to restore our real religion, which stems from our holy book the Koran, which believes in living together. It believes in the dignity of a human being.”
Indeed Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio had reason for choosing the name of Francis for his papacy. Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that Christians set out armed only with their humble faith and concrete love. If we live in the world according to the ways of God, we will become channels of His presence.
In 1219, at a time when Christians were forcing their way into the Holy Land through crusades with Muslims, Francis decided to engage the Sultan who ruled over Palestine into dialogue. Through love and respectful listening, as well as the willingness to be changed by an aspect of truth expressed by another. Francis and the Sultan were able to establish that the truth is not the property of a single person or tradition or religion; it can be found at the core of each person.
Francis was introduced to a bigger picture of the monotheistic faith tradition of Abraham which is shared by Jesus Christ and by the Prophet Muhammad. He understood that the reverence Muslims have for the Qur’an and their devotion to the 99 names of Allah mirrors the praises of the Christian God. St Francis was granted access to the Holy Land and the Franciscan Religious Order, thereafter, became the official custodian of the Christian holy shrines in the Holy Land, on behalf of the Catholic Church.
It may be recalled that in May 2014 Pope Francis made a joint pilgrimage to Jerusalem with a Jewish Rabbi and a Sheikh. He was inviting all the faithful to a common pilgrimage of prayer to the same God. Indeed the power of spirituality has the ability to to subdue conflict.
One of the primary tasks of the Pope is to encourage and affirm the faithful of Christ’s Church. Wherever he goes Pope Francis consistently invites the faithful to embrace the beatitudes. It means keeping the heart pure, practicing meekness and justice despite everything, being merciful to everyone and to live affliction in union with God (Matthew 5:3-12). The beatitudes are Jesus’ way of bringing God’s love into a sinful world.