On February 3, when Pope Francis touched down in Abu Dhabi, he became the first pontiff ever to visit the Arabian Peninsula.
Along with Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan Mubarak Al Nahyan, he attended an interfaith conference on February 4 and 5, which drew a huge crowd of 1.3 lakh to the Sheikh Zayed Sports City Stadium. The audience chanted “Viva il Papa” and “We love you”, all the while waving Vatican flags and banners.
The Guardian reports the Pope and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar or the “head of Sunni Islam’s most prestigious seat of learning”, signed a declaration, calling for peace between all demographics—race, religion, and ethnicity.
The declaration states, “We resolutely declare that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood.”
Who is Pope Francis?
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis, became the 266th pontiff and first Latin American to lead the Roman Catholic Church in 2013. He was born in Buenos Aires and studied in Argentina and Germany.
BBC says, “His supporters liked his “common touch” and his zealous determination to reform the Curia (Vatican bureaucracy), root out corruption in the Vatican bank, as well as deal with the horrific legacy of child sex abuse within the Church.”
He has also voiced his opinions on a number of secular issues today: he has shown support towards the LGBTQ community, stood against capitalist and free-market policies, and implored European politicians to take a softer stance against immigration. Al Jazeera reports he has also made “outreach to Muslim communities a cornerstone of his papacy”.
But he does not always occupy the left of centre position on many other social issues. “He’s said no to women priests and gay marriage, defined abortion as the ‘most horrific’ of crimes, defended the heart of the ban on birth control, and declared himself a loyal ‘son of the church’ on every other contested issue,” says BBC. However, he stresses on the ideals of mercy and forgiveness and is usually an advocate for social justice.
A lowdown of the event
Sheikh al-Tayeb expressed regret over the Muslim community bearing the brunt of xenophobia because of a “handful of criminals” who carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US. He said the media had a role in this discrimination, as it had contributed to fear of Muslims among the public.
The Guardian reports the Pope also met Abu Dhabi’s prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to discuss “enhancing cooperation, consolidating dialogue, tolerance, human coexistence, and important initiatives to achieve peace, stability and development for peoples and societies”.
Referring to the wars in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, Pope Francis called for an end to all the violence, especially expressing “great concern” over the plight of starving children in Yemen. He also said that religious leaders in the region had a “duty” to oppose a climate of aggression and war.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), an advocacy group, asked the Pope to address UAE’s role in various cases of human rights abuse, such as its involvement in the Yemen war as an ally of Saudi Arabia, who’d triggered it, censoring of political dissidents, and detention of activists. Al Jazeera reports the International Union of Muslim Scholars said the Pope’s visit might come across as an endorsement of UAE’s human rights violations, and joined the HRW in its demands.
There is likely public support for the Pope’s comments as, BBC reports, the UAE has close to a million Roman Catholics originating from India and the Philippines. The Pope voiced a need for a proper minister, priests, and for most churches to guide the Catholic community in the UAE. BBC says the Pope’s visit could potentially loosen restrictions on the construction of churches in the region.
Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius.