Pope visit to look forward and back to build bonds of friendship and faith

The arrival of Pope Francis is timely as a counterweight to the rise of extremism and has distinct echoes for earlier interfaith encounters

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - February 3, 2019: Day one of the UAE papal visit - HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces (R), receives His Holiness Pope Francis, Head of the Catholic Church (2nd R), at the Presidential Airport. 
( Mohamed Al Hammadi / Ministry of Presidential Affairs )
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The arrival of Pope Francis in the UAE should be seen as a historic moment for interfaith relations and holds global significance, historians say.

It is particularly timely as Christianity faces a crisis in its traditional heartlands of the Middle East.

The visit will send an important message of tolerance at a time when religious nationalism elsewhere is on the rise, religious experts said.

It is also likely to prove a forum for diplomacy, with problems including Jerusalem and the persecution of Christians in countries such as Egypt and Syria among those discussed between global leaders.

The three-day trip has echoes of historic encounters between representatives of the world’s two most-popular religions, said Anthony O’Mahony, who is recognised as one of the world’s leading scholars of Middle East Christianity.

Mr O’Mahony drew parallels with John Paul II’s trip to Morocco in 1985, when he asked a crowd of 60,000 Muslims in Casablanca to accept differences with “humility and respect and mutual tolerance”.

It could also be seen as an indirect continuation of a historic encounter, eight centuries ago this year, between St Francis of Assisi, after whom Pope Francis is named, and Sultan Malik Al Kamil of Egypt.

The meeting proved an early instance of tolerance between the Muslim and Christian worlds.

(Archive) King Hassan II of Morocco (L) welcomes Pope John Paul II upon his arrival at Mohamed V airport in Casablanca on August 19, 1985 for an official visit to Morocco. AFP PHOTO JEAN-CLAUDE DELMAS (Photo by JEAN-CLAUDE DELMAS / AFP)
(Archive) King Hassan II of Morocco (L) welcomes Pope John Paul II upon his arrival at Mohamed V airport in Casablanca on August 19, 1985 for an official visit to Morocco. AFP PHOTO JEAN-CLAUDE DELMAS (Photo by JEAN-CLAUDE DELMAS / AFP)

"There is a historical as well as a contemporary context for this encounter," Mr O'Mahony, a fellow at Blackfriars at the University of Oxford, told The National.

“This is not just about the UAE, it has global resonance. It is not just important for Christians in the Middle East but is a historical marker for encounters between these two religious traditions.

“Because of the importance of the Middle East for Islam and historically for Christianity, a meeting of religious leaders in the region, and the Pope going to the Gulf, has great symbolic value for the wider Christian and Muslim worlds.”

Islam has for centuries dominated in the region but Christianity’s presence in the Gulf goes back hundreds of years.

The first Christians are believed to have reached the Arabian Gulf in the fourth century, remaining until about the ninth century.

A historical Christian Monastery in the UAE, found on Sir Bani Yas Island on 1992, is believed to have been built about the year 600.

While Christians in the UAE are expatriates, their religious communities are thriving at a time of fundamental change for religion in the Mena region.

The number of Christians living in the Gulf area is believed to have increased to about five million, as numbers drop in neighbouring areas caught up in conflicts.

There were about 1.2 million Christians in Iraq in the early 1990s, with a community there for about 2,000 years.

Now, the figure is 250,000, with 80 per cent leaving since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Conflict in Syria and Egypt has opened the door to the persecution of historic Christian communities there, and populations have crashed.

“We are living in a world of religious nationalism, which excludes plurality and diversity but also undermines the character of societies,” Mr O’Mahony said.

“This is not a trend only in the Middle East but a global phenomenon.

“Pope Francis undertaking this important pastoral visit, which will include meeting various Muslim religious leaders in the Arabian Peninsula, is acknowledging the significance of the co-existence between these two global religions. The 20th century has witnessed a real change in the character and geographic spread of Christianity in the region.

“The historical heartlands of Christianity in the Middle East [Egypt, Syria, Iraq, the Holy Land] are really in crisis and under great pressure. But in the Gulf area, we are seeing a new type of Christian landscape.

“Pope Francis’s visit to the UAE has as its backdrop an acknowledgment of the real crisis for the traditional Christian presence in the region but also its expansion in the Gulf.”

The invitation to Pope Francis to visit the UAE was extended in 2016. Catholics across the region are set to travel to Abu Dhabi for the visit.

There are about one million Catholics in the Emirates. Those who were unable to secure one of about 135,000 tickets for the public Mass Pope Francis will lead can watch a live stream in churches across the country.

Pope Francis, who became pontiff in 2013, has made efforts to build bridges with the Muslim world, said Christian Sahner, associate professor of Islamic history at Oxford.

While his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI angered Muslims with an infamous 2006 address that many interpreted as an attack on Islam, Pope Francis “has a very positive reputation in many Muslim countries”, Dr Sahner said.

“Early on in his pontificate, for example, he made the very deliberate decision to wash the feet of several Muslims on Holy Thursday,” he said.

"Those sorts of gestures are taken seriously and appreciated by Muslims."

Dr Sahner said the visit would help the UAE to project its positive image of tolerance in the region and offer a contrast to “awful images” of Christian deaths and people fleeing from Iraq and Syria.

Mr O’Mahony said the future of Jerusalem was a likely topic of discussion in talks between the Pope and the UAE Rulers.

Dr Sahner said that the treatment of Christians in countries with which the UAE has diplomatic influence would be on the table.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, said the visit would provide a forum to “seek dialogue on the peaceful coexistence among peoples”.

“The brand of Islam one finds in the UAE historically has much in common with what one finds elsewhere in the Gulf,” Dr Sahner said.

“But because of the decisions of its Rulers, it has not followed the strict, conservative and closed approach.

“Although there isn’t an indigenous Christian population in the Gulf today, in antiquity, there were many, many Christians.

“The Gulf was a vital centre of Christian monasticism. There’s a very important early Christian site in the Emirates, at Sir Bani Yas Island.

“Obviously that community did not carry on to the present in the way that ancient Christian communities did in Iraq or the Levant or Egypt.

"But it's there, and it's something that the new Christian communities that have popped up over the past few decades look on as a sign of continuity.

“The authorities also seem happy to play that up as a sign of their diversity not only now but also across time.”