Pope Francis heading to UAE for historic meeting

Meeting with religious leaders and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayebb part of UAE’s “year of tolerance” supporting interfaith dialogue.

Pope Francis gives the thumb up as he arrives to lead the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pope Francis gives the thumb up as he arrives to lead the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the first-ever papal visit to the Arabian peninsula, Pope Francis is heading to the United Arab Emirates on Sunday for a trip to highlight coexistence, religious freedom and interfaith relations.
The pope plans to meet with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb. The UAE has declared 2019 the “year of tolerance,” bringing together different religions.
In preparation for the visit, the UAE has been highlighting its commitment to tolerance and peace between religions. This is important in a region recovering from years of conflict and strife. With Islamic State almost defeated in Syria, it is an opportune time to seek a new page with the Middle East at this crossroads. The centerpiece of the visit is a mass at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City on Tuesday which is expected to attract up to 135,000 people, according to the Vatican.
“I am happy for this occasion the Lord has given me to write on your dear land, a new page in the history of relations between religions,” the pope said last week. He also said, in Arabic, “Peace be with you.” He asserted that faith in these times can draw people closer.
The UAE is hosting 600 religious leaders for an inter-faith conference that will also be part of the pope’s itinerary. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, tweeted his welcome to the pontiff and to el-Tayeb. “We are hopeful that generations to come will prosper in peace and security.”
A page devoted to the Human Fraternity Meeting, the interfaith part of the trip, says that 2,000 students have signed a Zayed Pledge of Tolerance, that is part of the precursor events to the arrival of Tayeb and Francis.
The UAE is seeking to position itself as a meeting place of religions in the region. “Tolerance is deeply rooted in the history of the UAE,” one tweet from the Human Fraternity Meeting’s account says. It emphasizes that different religions have existed in the UAe throughout history. A graphic points to a historic monastery, a Hindu Temple in Dubai and an ancient Sun Temple in Umm al-Quwain. “There are 76 houses of worship of different religions and creeds.”
In February last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the construction of a larger Hindu Temple.
Al-Azhar, the historic university and center of Islamic learning in Cairo, Egypt, is playing a key role in the meeting. This is part of a message of tolerance that has been pushed by Al-Azhar leaders over the last few years and is connected to the Egyptian government’s attempt to move past the rancor that followed the Arab Spring revolution and the temporary rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Al-Azhar says it is played a crucial role “in spreading the true values of Islam and promoting intercultural dialogue.”
Francis has been outspoken about peace in the Middle East. He has spoken out about suffering in Yemen and across the region. He is scheduled to visit Morocco in March.
The interfaith discussions also come in the wake of reports in December about a synagogue in Dubai which Bloomberg described as a rented villa in a “quiet residential neighborhood” used for services.
Marc Schneier, an American rabbi and founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding who has played a formative role in Jewish outreach to the Gulf, told The Arabian Gazette on January 30 that he was in the UAE this week. “To start, it is historic that Pope Francis is visiting Abu Dhabi and a true honor for me to be here for this and to represent the Jewish communities in the Gulf. This is not only an incredible fete for the UAE and the Vatican, but it marks a new era for interfaith relations.”