Hope for a new era
The meeting of the two religious leaders gave a clear and decisive sign that respect and dialogue are possible
The recent visit of Pope Francis to the United Arab Emirates, the first by the spiritual head of Roman Catholics, to the Arabian peninsula, the birthplace of Islam, and his participation at an interfaith conference along with the Grand Imam of Cairo-based Al Azhar mosque, Ahmad Al Tayyeb, the topmost religious figure in Sunni Islam, has evoked hopes for a new era of religious tolerance in a region afflicted with extremism and sectarian violence.
The political unrest and sectarian violence in the region and reports of persecution of Christians, burning of Churches raised concerns in the western world at a prayer meeting in Italy, in July last year, attended by heads of Churches from the Middle East. The Pope had condemned the "complicit" silence in the region on the issue.
The UAE leadership has designated 2019 as the Year of Tolerance. The Pope joined 600 Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religious figures at the Global Conference on Human Fraternity to foster understanding and build interfaith dialogue and ecumenicalism. His participation at a public mass highlighted political reaffirmation that Christians and their religious freedom will be defended and safeguarded in the Muslim world.
Addressing the gathering, the 83-year-old pontiff said, "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."
A rare achievement for the UAE of the Vatican head's visit was to have a 'declaration of fraternity' jointly signed by signed by the Pope, head of the 1.2 billion Catholics comprising half of the Christians in the world and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar seminary, the most prestigious seat of learning for Sunni Muslims who account for 85 per cent of the world's total Muslim population.
The declaration condemned religiously motivated and other violence and delivered a strong message that all religions shared common human values.
This was the fifth meeting between Pope Francis and Ahmad Al Tayyab over the years. It indicated that the anguish Muslim world had following Pope Benedict's 2006 comments linking Islam to violence has dissipated. The Pope, who also conducted an open mass attended by over 1,35,000 people, has himself rightly described his visit as "a new page in the history of dialogue between Christianity and Islam," and in promoting world peace based on brotherhood.
On his return to the Vatican, he said his encounter with leaders of Islam is a counterpoint to the "strong temptation" to contend there's a current clash between Christian and Islamic civilisations. The meeting of the two religious leaders gave a clear and decisive sign that respect and dialogue are possible between the Christian and Islamic worlds. The leitmotiv of his pontificate since inception on March 2013 has been Christians and Muslims are brothers in their faith.
The Pope appeals for peace in the Middle East in a Christmas message and a dialogue with Islam is one of the main features of his pontificate following in the path of some of his predecessors. Pope Paul VI made the first pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1964, and Pope Jean Paul II was the first to set foot in a mosque in 2001.
His staunch support for a dialogue with Islam is a bone of contention with his detractors who have also rejected his rejection of any association between religion and terrorism. While his supporters say the pope is just bringing to life the message of the New Testament, his critics have been accusing him of blasphemy.
His critics are ignoring the fact that Gulf countries like the UAE, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain have allowed Christians from around the world to live, work and follow their religion there and reflect that coexistence between Islam and Christianity in a modern Muslim society is possible. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the region that prohibits the practice of non-Islamic faiths.
This is not the Pope's first visit to an Islamic country. In his six years as pontiff, Francis has made 25 trips abroad, out of which 13 were to Muslim countries including Turkey, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, and Bangladesh. He had prayed in local mosques with their imams invoking tolerance and peace between worshippers of the two faiths.
The visit of the Pope is a positive thing if it leads to a constructive exchange between the two faiths and results in some tangible outcome in bringing peace and tranquility in the region inflicted with deep internal divisions and conflicts.
By hosting the pontiff, the UAE leadership has shown that they believe in religious and cultural tolerance, a precondition for fostering peace in the world. The country has 76 places of worship for different faiths, including about 50 churches. In Dubai, there is Hindu temple, Sikh Gurdwara and a Buddhist temple. A grand Hindu temple is under construction in Abu Dhabi. Christmas and Diwali are widely celebrated in UAE.
(The author is a former Editor of PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal)