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By: Caitlyn Gardiner/Arab America Contributing Writer
Pope Francis has certainly had a unique papacy, and his latest trip to is no exception. During the first five years of his papacy, he visited seven Muslim-majority countries, including Jordan, Palestine, Turkey, and Egypt. Each of these trips has focused on spreading a message of peace, with the Pope referring to Muslims as “brothers” every time. This time, he visited the United Arab Emirates, marking the first time any Pope has visited a Sunni Muslim Gulf nation. This was the first time a papal mass was delivered in the Arabian Peninsula.
“Christians and Muslims are Brothers and Sisters.”
In November 2015, when Pope Francis visited the Central Mosque of Koudoukou, Bangui in the Central African Republic, he said “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters. We must, therefore, consider ourselves and conduct ourselves as such. Those who claim to believe in God must also be men and women of peace.” Pope Francis has carried a message of peace on every international trip. His theme for this trip is a quote taken from one of St. Francis of Assisi’s prayers: Make Me a Channel of Your Peace. This approach of peaceful, personable dialogue has echoed the message of St. Pope John Paul II.
When St. Pope John Paul II visited Nigeria to discuss issues with Muslim religious leaders, he said “Why do I speak of these issues with you? Because you are Muslims, and like us Christians, you believe in the one God who is the source of all the rights and values of mankind. Furthermore, I am convinced that if we join hands in the name of God we can accomplish much good. We can work together for harmony and national unity, in sincerity and greater mutual confidence. We can collaborate in the promotion of justice, peace, and development. It is my earnest hope that our solidarity of brotherhood, under God, will truly enhance the future of Nigeria and all Africa, and add to the good ordering of the world as a universal civilization of love.”
Building Bridges Between Faiths
Pope Francis has returned to the message of St. Pope John Paul II by making it his mission to build bridges with the Muslim world. In 2013, shortly after he was elected, Pope Francis started Vatican-Muslim forums and other events to ensure peaceful interfaith dialogue was fostered. He also has traveled to the Middle East numerous times. Each time, he has put his sincerity ahead of his personal safety. While most international leaders would travel in a bulletproof vehicle, Pope Francis has always insisted on traveling humbly. When the Pope visited Egypt in 2017 just weeks after 45 were killed in two Egyptian churches, he chose to arrive at the open-air Mass in an open-topped golf cart. He is continuing this pattern in his visit to Abu Dhabi, where his vehicle is a Kia Soul.
This visit to the United Arab Emirates is considered to be symbolic of long-awaited positive interfaith relations. Pope Francis is pioneering bridges between Catholics and Muslims by visiting this country in the periphery of the Muslim world. In the United Arab Emirates, Christians are allowed to practice their faith, though they may only hold mass in designated churches. The country also does not have any native Christians, but constant international travel means there are nearly one million Catholics in the country at any given time.
Global Conference of Human Fraternity
Prior to his trip to Abu Dhabi, the pope called for an end to the wars in Syria and Yemen. “Every form of violence must be condemned without hesitation… No violence can be justified in the name of religion,” he said regarding the war in Yemen.
Pope Francis addressed the interfaith conference in Abu Dhabi on February 4th, stating they had gathered “to desire peace, to promote peace, (and) to be instruments of peace.” Throughout this address, he frequently called for unity, discussed the importance of dialogue and prayer, and advocated for “the courage of otherness”- being brave enough to recognize the freedoms and rights of others.
“War cannot create anything but misery, weapons bring nothing but death,” the pope stated at an interfaith meeting in Abu Dhabi. “I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Libya,”
At the conference, the Pope and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar signed the Human Fraternity Document. This document declared their respective religions’ commitment to promoting peace, freedom, justice, dialogue, and compassion while protecting the security of people regardless of religion, sex, race, or age.
On the final day of his visit, Pope Francis held the Arabian Peninsula’s first papal mass. Nearly 170,000 Catholics attended this mass. There was certainly a strong, positive reception of the Pope in the United Arab Emirates, but this was even more pronounced at the mass.
Rateb Rabie, President, and CEO of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation said that there was “the same look on the face of the people as when Pope John Paul II visited Jordan.” In an interview with Arab America, Rabie said this visit truly highlighted the united message of love, peace, and brotherhood that Christianity and Islam share.
He also hopes that the whole world will be able to follow this model of coexistence and cooperation outlined by the two religious leaders.
“We have to work with each other to help the poor and the oppressed. We have to follow what we’ve been taught in order to bring the good life to everyone,” said Rabie.