The Irish Times view on Pope Francis in the Gulf: Inter-faith gestures
Pope Francis’s visit to UAE is the first by a pope and the first papal visit to Arabian peninsula, cradle of Islam
Pope Francis is welcomed by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, upon his arrival to the presidential palace in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi on Monday. Photograph: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images
The visit of Pope Francis to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is not his first to a Muslim country as pope. He has visited some of Islam’s most sacred sites, including the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, as well as Muslim-majority countries such as Jordan, Azerbaijan, and Egypt. Next month he will visit Morocco. But his current visit to the UAE is the first by a pope there and also the first papal visit to the Arabian peninsula, cradle of Islam.
Although the UAE officially has a policy of religious tolerance, Christians still face discrimination
An absolute monarchy, the UAE comprises seven emirates where an estimated 7.8 million of the 9.2 million population are expatriates, including about 8,000 Irish. Expats make up the great majority of UAE Christians, including a million Catholics, most of whom are Filipino, Indian, and European.
Islam is the dominant religion and, although the UAE officially has a policy of religious tolerance, Christians still face discrimination. Pope Francis is there to attend a conference on inter-religious dialogue sponsored by the Muslim Council of Elders, an initiative which seeks to counter religious fanaticism. It is an idea of Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo.
Yesterday, Pope Francis told the conference that “we gravely profane God’s name when we use it to justify hatred and violence against a brother or sister. No violence can be justified in the name of religion.” He also called for the rejection of war in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Libya. The UAE is involved in the Yemeni conflict alongside Saudi Arabia, whose appalling bombardment has caused large-scale death and destruction.
This is the fifth meeting between Pope Francis and Sheikh el-Tayeb, evidence that bad feeling between Muslims and Rome, following Pope Benedict’s 2006 comments linking Islam to violence, have dissipated. A further indication today will be the celebration by Pope Francis of an open-air Mass in Abu Dhabi, expected to be the largest such event ever held in one of the most religiously significant parts of the Islamic world.