Looking out onto the sea of religious head coverings – a panoply of zucchettos, kippot, and taqiyahs – the desire for coexistence and tolerance was unmistakable. It was early 2019, and Abu Dhabi was in the midst of its first-ever visit from the leader of the Catholic Church, His Holiness Pope Francis. The trip was historic in innumerable ways. Its timing was also incredibly apropos, taking place during what the Emirates had dubbed the Year of Tolerance.
At the heart of the ambitious papal schedule was a desire to cultivate interfaith dialogue among the three Abrahamic religions – Muslims, Christians and Jews. Global news coverage understandably focused on the trip’s signature event, a Sunday Mass service in the national football stadium attended by tens of thousands of Catholics from around the world. However, it was gatherings such as the intimate ceremony held the night before Mass, attended by leaders of all three Abrahamic faiths, which highlighted the desire of the Emiratis to be truly inclusive of all religious backgrounds.
The same, it would appear, cannot be said for the pope’s most recent trip to Iraq - at least as it pertains to the full embrace of all Abrahamic faiths. The moving scene of Christians and Muslims coming together in a place where just a few years earlier war crimes and religious atrocities had taken place was incredibly powerful. And while the visit has been rightly heralded as inspiring, uplifting, and transformative for the country’s besieged Christian community – one that desperately needed an injection of hope – it was nevertheless a missed opportunity for religious pluralism in Iraq and the broader Middle East.
While the full story of religious diversity thriving in the UAE has only recently come to light, Iraq had a remarkable history of religious tolerance and successful coexistence. Although many decades now removed, there was a time when Baghdad was seen as one of the epicenters of the Jewish world. During the first half of the 20th century, Baghdad’s Jewish community was over 130,000, making up over 25% of the city’s overall population. Jewish life was so intertwined with Iraqi culture as a whole that in 1947 Renée Dangor – whose grandfather was once the chief rabbi of Baghdad – was awarded the title of Miss Iraq.
Yet, not even 75 years later, when Iraq hosted one of the most important events in its modern history, Jews were by all accounts nowhere to be found. It has been reported that despite Vatican desires for a public Jewish presence during his visit, no such attendance was allowed to materialize. Although the number of Jews residing in Iraq has precipitously dwindled to at best the single digits in recent years, there are still tens of thousands living throughout the diaspora – some of whom would likely have welcomed the opportunity to safely return to a land where their families have deep roots.
Conversely, during the various functions held during the pope’s visit to Abu Dhabi, Jewish people were welcomed with open arms. Even those – more than 18 months before the signing of the Abraham Accords – with significant connections to the State of Israel. I witnessed this desire for interfaith dialogue firsthand.
With no secret made about the fact I had spent several years serving as a regional political director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, I was given the opportunity to help lead a delegation of Western thought leaders – primarily journalists and academics – to Abu Dhabi for the papal visit. Throughout my time in the UAE, I consistently encountered sincerity, tolerance and a genuine curiosity toward both my faith and strong support for the Jewish state.
My experience in this regard was far from unique. Numerous rabbis participated in events throughout the pope’s visit, including several who were prominently featured at the Global Conference of Human Fraternity that ran concurrently with the trip. In high-level meetings our delegation held with senior Emirati officials, religious tolerance was a frequent discussion topic. The UAE’s views toward Israel were discussed openly and on the record. The minister for culture proudly showed the group Jewish artifacts that were displayed in the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
All of this was taking place at a time when formal relations between the UAE and Israel still did not exist. Moving these types of conversations into the public sphere was likely intended to serve as yet another trial balloon, helping gauge both foreign and domestic reactions to a new Middle East paradigm. There is little doubt that the groundwork for the aforementioned Abraham Accords was years in the making.
However, it is equally clear that the Emiratis were ready to capitalize on this type of momentous occasion. They saw the pope’s historic visit as not only a way to show the world they were serious about coexistence, but perhaps more importantly, their own population as well. The Emirati leadership made a strategic choice to publicly highlight an important segment of their population – the hundreds of thousands of Catholics who hail from every corner of the globe but now call the UAE home.
The Iraqi government’s ostensible reluctance to similarly embrace all faiths – including their long history with Jews – will only impede their nation’s road to recovery. Unfortunately, it will also delay an opportunity decades in the making to once again serve as a global beacon of hope for religious tolerance and coexistence.
The writer is a former regional political director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), who is now a public affairs consultant based in London.