Pope Francis is expected to preside over the largest act of Christian worship in the Arab world when he celebrates mass during the first papal visit to the United Arab Emirates.
The 82-year-old Roman pontiff will become the first pope to celebrate an outdoor mass in the Arabian Peninsula, attended by up to 135,000 people at the Zayed Sports City stadium.
The tablet may also signal that all events of the pope’s visit from February 3-5 are to be filmed by broadcasters and photographers in the state of the United Arab Emirates, which the government has ordered to be made available to free of charge. other media.
This is an important move given that on papal journeys state television channels normally sell their footage to other broadcasters for a fee, and the ruling of the Muslim-majority country demonstrates their willingness to capitalize on a moment. history for the United Arab Emirates.
“We think this pope is working very hard to harmonize understanding between different religions,” UAE Ambassador to the UK Sulaiman Almazroui told me. “He has a sincere desire to arrive at a balanced reflection on accepting Islam without extremism. And Christianity minus extremism.
The United Arab Emirates, a federation of oil-rich emirates officially established as a country in 1971, prides itself on being one of the most religiously tolerant states in the Middle East and allows the building of churches in the region since 1965.
Saint Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi is home to the largest congregation of all Muslim-majority countries and is located a short walk from the “Mary, Mother of Jesus” Mosque, recently renamed to demonstrate the importance of coexistence between religions.
The country has at least forty churches and around a million Catholics, many of whom are migrant workers from southern India and the Philippines who will be among those who take the seats at Zayed Stadium on February 5.
Although freedom of religion in the UAE does not match Western definitions of the term given that Muslims in the country are prohibited from changing faiths, the Pope is likely to point out how the country is an example of coexistence. Christians and Muslims with tackling the notion of “clash of civilizations” between East and West.
In a message released ahead of his visit, the Pope hailed the UAE as a “model of coexistence”, adding that faith in God should unite people and keep them away from “hostility and aversion”.
“Amid alarming global trends towards nationalism, populism and bigotry, the UAE is providing strategic retreat against intolerance,” said Canon Andy Thompson, the senior Anglican chaplain of Abu Dhabi, who lives in the United Arab Emirates. United Arab Emirates for over twenty years. Tablet.
Canon Thompson explained that the Mass on February 5 will be the “greatest act of Christian worship ever carried out in the history of the region”, adding that “Pope Francis is deeply admired and loved by many for his commitment to living a authentic Christian lifestyle despite the pitfalls of power and the perceived richness of its function.
He said that “the country’s commitment to pluralism must be seen within the framework of Islamic theology,” and that while there is freedom for Christians to worship, it is not the same as religious freedom as defined by the United Nations Charter on Human and Religious Rights. freedom.
The Pope’s visit to the United Arab Emirates is the centerpiece of a triptych that includes the visit to Cairo in 2017 and the upcoming trip to Morocco next month which, in geopolitical terms, is an opportunity for the Vatican to open channels for dialogue with Muslim leaders while privately trying to exert greater influence in the region. Francis must be accompanied in his meetings with a Vatican official who speaks fluent Arabic.
The day before Mass on February 5, the Pope will participate in an interfaith conference attended by religious leaders, including the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, whom Francis has met on several occasions.
The UAE’s main ally is Saudi Arabia, a country with which the Holy See quietly seeks links, but which is much more restrictive when it comes to freedom of worship. Even more worrying is the involvement of the Saudi-UAE coalition in the war in Yemen, which, after nearly four years of fighting, has left more than 14 million people at risk of starvation.
The Holy See has always taken the approach of slowly and patiently building a dialogue with world leaders, believing that more can be achieved through quiet persuasion based on relationships of trust than through political demagoguery.
A long-term priority for the Pope is also to work with Islamic leaders to target extremism, which UAE leaders are likely to be willing to do.
UAE authorities ensure that schoolchildren are taught respect for different faiths as part of the school curriculum, while the government issues preaching guidelines every Friday for imams to follow in order to deliver faith-proof sermons. hatred.
“The UAE has long embraced tolerance, [and]by its nature, it has coexisted with many different nationalities and denominations ”, underlined Ambassador Almazroui, adding that the Pope was visiting during the Year of Tolerance of the country.
“The UAE does not have the poverty and unemployment that lead to extremism, but the ideology is sometimes cross-border. Many wealthy clerics – like Osama bin Laden – have embraced extremism. But in so many other countries, a lot of people are unemployed, they’re below the poverty line, and the only refuge they have is religion. ”
But he added: “Islamophobia is also something that needs to be looked at. The majority of Muslims are tolerant people who coexist with others in Europe, America and the Arab world. So they shouldn’t be blamed for what the small minority is doing.
Father Diego Sarrió Cucarella, president of the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies in Rome, called the Pope’s visit a historic moment for the Church’s relations with Islam, although he said that political authorities in the Muslim world had to do more.
“In recent years, a large number of publications and fatwas emanating from the Arabian Peninsula have argued that friendly and personal relations between Muslims and non-Muslims are prohibited and that Muslims should avoid spiritual contamination by non-Muslims,” he told The Tablet.
The Pope is due to travel to Abu Dhabi on Sunday February 3 to arrive at 10 p.m. local time. On Monday, February 4, he will meet with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto head of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Muslim Council of Elders of Sheikh Zayed Mosque before addressing the interfaith gathering.
The next day, he will visit Saint Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi and say mass at the sports stadium, before resuming a flight at 1:00 p.m. which is due to land in Rome at 5:00 p.m. local time.
Christopher Lamb, correspondent for The Tablet in Rome, will travel on the papal plane and report on the visit.