Pope Francis, the head of the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church, has arrived in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, Monday, February 3rd, making him the first pontiff to visit an Arab Gulf territory.
In a vide the Vatican released last Thursday, the visit of the Pope to UAE marks “a new page in the history of relations between religions, confirming that we are brothers and sisters, even though we are different.”
The UAE, being an Arab Gulf country, is comprised majorly of devout Muslims. However, the rich-oil country has seen growth in the Christian population in the recent years brought by the increasing popularity of the country for expatriation. Most of the 1.2 million Christians in UAE are Indians and Filipinos.
He will spend three days in UAE’s capital city, Abu Dhabi, to attend an interreligious conference with Jewish and Christian leaders in the country. The visit will commence in a papal mass at the Zayed Sports City on Tuesday with an expected number of attendees at 135,000 – the most significant Christian gathering in UAE’s history. The ceremony is also considered to be one of the biggest social events to be hosted in the country prompting UAE to declare Tuesday a holiday to the mass-goers.
Moving towards religious coexistence
The UAE is the Vatican’s head-of-state seventh visit to a Muslim dominated territory, and the pontiff has high hopes of building a coexisting relationship between Christians and Muslims in these regions. The Pope has sought to build bridges with the Muslim community by refusing to equate Islam with violence, saying that religions around the world share the same fundamental elements and the leaders of all faiths should work hand in hand to fight against the evils of the world and to combat violence.
The Pope is also scheduled to meet for the fourth time with the head of Al -Azhar mosque – considered to be the highest authority in Sunni Islam – on Monday’s conference.
The head of the mosque, Al-Azhar Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb has previously cut ties with the Vatican after Pope Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, has allegedly equated Islam with violence in a pronouncement he made in 2006.
In his video message, the Pope praised the UAE as “a land that seeks to be a model of coexistence, human brotherhood, and an encounter between different civilizations and cultures.”
The government of the oil-rich country has been pressured by progressive religious groups to promote religious coexistence and has then responded by establishing the Ministry of Tolerance and declaring the year 2019 as the “year of tolerance.
However, this move has been dismissed by the opposition and protesters saying that it was ‘symbolic’ and ‘a political stunt’ pointing to the government’s intensified crackdown on dissenters in the country in recent years.
“Since 2011, the authorities have systematically cracked down on their critics, including activists, judges, lawyers, academics, students and journalists by way of arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment.” said Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director Lynn Maalouf in a statement Friday that called on Francis to raise the issue of the incarceration of some prominent human rights defenders in UAE. /apr