BUILDING BRIDGES

BUILDING BRIDGES

On February 3, 2019, Pope Francis began his three-day visit to the United Arab Emirates, the first of a Pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula and the wider Gulf region. The visit comes on the invitation of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and follows on the meeting the Crown Prince held with the Pope at the Vatican in 2016. On the agenda during his time in the UAE, the Pope will have a meeting with members of the Muslim Council of Elders, engage in an interreligious dialogue, and hold a public mass for an estimated 125,000 worshippers. While the visit to the UAE can be termed historic in the sense that it is the first visit by the head of the Catholic Church to the region, it should be recognized that the travel by the pontiff to Abu Dhabi is the natural next step in a connection between the GCC leadership and the Vatican that stretches back to 2007 when Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud held a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. A direct result of that meeting was the establishment of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna, Austria, in 2012. Further meetings followed. The Emir of Kuwait, Shaikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, also met with Pope Benedict in 2010 followed by Bahrain’s King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa’s visit to the Vatican in May of 2014. Most recently, in April 2018, King Salman of Saudi Arabia received the President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, Cardinal Louis Tauran, in Riyadh, where the two sides discussed the rejection of links between religion and terrorism and how to promote a culture of dialogue and tolerance of all followers of religion and cultures. This message has been picked up by other leaders. During his visit to Egypt just at the end of January, French President Macron reiterated in his meetings with Pope Tawedros I the need for the dialogue between religions. Pope Francis has made religious reconciliation and inter-faith dialogue a cornerstone of his papacy. With strong messages of mutual friendship, peace and coexistence and the rejection of violence in his luggage, the pontiff will be received with open arms and ears by the UAE and the wider GCC leadership. Coming in conjunction with 2019 being named as the Year of Tolerance in the UAE, the Pope’s meeting with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayyeb will underscore the determination by all sides to work actively to promote the co-existence of religions without exception. Beyond the symbolic nature of the visit, there is also a message of the growing acceptance of multiculturalism and multilateralism within the Arab Gulf region as an essential element in order to properly function in a globalized society. Within the GCC states more than 200 nationalities can be found. Almost 52% of the total population of the GCC states is composed of foreign nationals with the expatriate population representing an integral part of the economic and social advancement witnessed in the Arab Gulf over the past decades. As such promoting tolerance and religious exchanges is a natural extension of the GCC’s own path forward. In addition to strengthening aspects of inter-religious dialogue, the other core message tied to the visit of Pope Francis is one of peace and resolving conflict. Here religious institutions and leaders play a fundamental role in reducing social tensions, tackling issues of migration and enhancing education development as a cornerstone to greater understanding. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the Minister of State for Tolerance in the UAE, underscored this point when he mentioned that the Human Fratenity Conference which will be held in Abu Dhabi and bring together 600 religious figures will be instrumental in combatting the “destructive forces of extremism, terrorism, poverty, maladministration, ill-treatment of women, environmental abuse, illiteracy, prejudice and hate, scientific and logical ignorance, lack of sanitation and health care and greedy establishments that oppose the very idea of human fraternity.” Such a message should find resonance in Europe. Just in terms of recent history on the European continent, religious communities played a crucial role in overcoming the debilitating conflicts of the 1990s in the Balkans. In addition, faith-based organizations play crucial roles nearly every day when it comes to the distribution and delivery of humanitarian assistance and development aid. Taken together, religious organization has taken the dictum that peace requires creativity to heart. In this context, the coordination between Europe and the GCC states, when it comes to promoting tolerance and inter-religious dialogue, has begun to take on a more structured shape although further effort is still needed. Following the Jacques Delors project of a “Soul for Europe” to establish structured inter-religious discourses, Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty extends to the European Union a legal obligation to conduct an open, transparent and regular dialogue with churches and religious associations. This is the basis on which to put the Pope’s visit to the UAE in context and to use the occasion to follow with concrete ideas and projects. The visit is the culmination of a strong commitment by many sides for wider and more constructive inter-religious dialogue. At the same time, it is not an end by itself and should instead be seen as a catalyst towards the development of governing principles that must be developed within the context of inter-faith relations and greater tolerance. Pope Francis has stated that “Favoring dialogue, in any form whatsoever, is a fundamental responsibility of politics.” He will undoubtedly repeat the same message during his visit to the UAE. And while the leadership in the GCC states have stressed their readiness to do their part, the important outcome of the pontiff’s visit is not what he says and what messages are heard but what concrete steps are taken as a result that will ensure that his visit will indeed be remembered as historic.