Pope Francis Visits the UAE



It seems a lot of people saw the Pope's visit to the United Arab Emirates as an astounding breakthrough. It was reported as "the heartland of Islam" in some places, but this is complete nonsense, Saudi Arabia being the place where Islam spread from.

It might in fact surprise readers to know that Christians account for thirteen percent of the total population of the United Arab Emirates, according to a ministry report, which collected census data.

The government recognises various Christian denominations. Christians are free to worship and wear religious clothing, if applicable. The country has Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox churches along with Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. I visited a couple of years ago with my family and we were able to easily find a Catholic Church and attend Mass.

But all that notwithstanding, this was a landmark visit; the first time a pope had said Mass on the Arabian peninsular.

Why did he go to the UAE?

The principal reason for the trip was an interfaith meeting on the theme “Human Fraternity.” The Church’s theme for the papal visit was “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.” and the tenure of the visit was very much in keeping with the leit motif of this papacy: outreach to the poor.

In the Gulf, nearly everyone who does work involving physical labour comes from the Indian subcontinent or Southeast Asia. As a visitor to the Gulf, one sees them every day—serving food, driving taxis, cleaning. They are everywhere but still somehow invisible, because their unexalted work leaves them socially separated from citizens of Western countries and the Gulf.

To see tens of thousands of Filipinos and Indians worshipping together, in front of their Holy Father, in an event that all will someday describe to their children and grandchildren, was to see them achieve visibility. When you are legally required to hide what matters most to you, the chance to proclaim it becomes something greater than just a personal release. It is a collective acknowledgement of humanity long suppressed.

The joy visible in the crowds at the papal Mass was wonderful to see. I was eager to see whether he would speak about universal subjects, given the inherent controversy of his being in Abu Dhabi at all; a sermon about loving one’s neighbour would provoke less controversy than, say, a sermon about the Trinity, or another subject likely to spur polemics from Muslims who see a triune god as a form of polytheism.

In fact his choice of subject was classic and sublime. He spoke of the Sermon on the Mount, and he stressed the power of Christians to maintain their faith even in conditions of weakness, poverty, and oppression. Because nearly all the Catholics in the Emirates are members of the underclass, the topic must have been heard by all—or at least the small minority who speak Italian or Arabic—as a message of solidarity with guest workers who will never rise into the Emirati elite, but whose riches lie in the cultivation of Christian love in their hearts.

Some, like Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East executive director of Human Rights Watch, argue that the papal visit was simply a tool used to conceal the same moral rot that has afflicted the Gulf for decades. The Emirates still deprives residents of basic rights, including rights of free worship and expression. It persecutes, she writes, “peaceful critics, political dissidents, and human rights activists.” No one may leave Islam or object to its official form, sanctioned by the state. During the past twenty years, the UAE has reaped immense benefit from increased openness to the world. The papal visit is a pretence of reform, masking failure to institute real change.

The official Emirati line is that the tolerance on display continues a long tradition, embodied by the founding father of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan (1918–2004). “Sheikh Zayed believed all humanity is one,” says Zaki Nusseibeh, minister of state and a longtime spokesman for the Emirati government. Zayed had a “vision,” Nusseibeh says, an “ethos” of curiosity and engagement with the outside world. The visit of Pope Francis is the natural result of his vision.

Personally I think that in facilitating this visit, the Emiratis have taken a step away from Islamism which will be widely noted by the world. Pope Francis may have been a convenient political tool in this regard but his visit still had immense significance and value for the Catholics who live and work in the region.

This is Pope Francis though, so there has to be some scandal and confusion thrown in for good measure. The scandal came when Pope Francis came under fire for signing the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” with Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque, during the interreligious meeting in Abu Dhabi on Feb. 4.

The document incited controversy among Christians for asserting that “the pluralism and the diversity of religions” are “willed by God in His wisdom” – a statement many believe contravenes the Catholic Faith.

While some have sought to downplay the passage, saying it must be read in context, one Dominican has argued that “in its obvious sense [the statement] is false, and in fact heretical.” One respected Catholic historian has also said it “overturns” the Gospel.

Pope Francis told reporters that “if someone feels bad” about the document, he “understand[s].”
“It’s not an everyday thing, and it’s not a step backwards. It’s a step forward that comes from 50 years ago, from the Council that must unfold and develop. Historians say that it takes 100 years for a Council to take root in the Church. We’re halfway there.”

The Pope said he can also understand how the “Document on Human Fraternity” might seem shocking to some. “It happened to me, too,” he said. “I read a sentence, and I said to myself: This sentence is a little … I don’t know if it’s sure. Instead, it was a phrase from the Council! It surprised me, too.”

This is not the first time Pope Francis has argued that an apparently “new” (and what some consider heterodox) teaching is actually a “development of doctrine.”

It must seem to the outside world like this is a great move; you know, all us religious nut cases getting a long and forgetting our differences, which, let's face it, are all pretty meaningless anyway. 

But if we as a faith have anything meaningful to say to the world then our leader saying that we are all pretty much climbing up the same hill is not terribly helpful.

I think the Pope needs to remember that his duty is not to conform only to the teaching of Vatican II, but also to that of all the councils. Moreover, nothing in Vatican II states that non-Catholic religions are willed by God, so when Pope Francis tells us that nothing in his ‘Document on Fraternity’ goes beyond Vatican II, he is telling us something that is not true. Not for the first time either.

How does he explain all those Catholic missionaries who gave their lives to spread the Gospel? How does he explain Jesus' words in Matthew 28:19-20 "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit".

Once again we have Pope Francis directly contradicting Christ in Scripture it is deeply troubling and even if his intention is good, the best that can really be said is that he is inept. We all want peace and to foster greater understanding, but is this the way to achieve it? If it is, we may as well all pack up and go home.



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