Pope Francis with Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

‘Sentinels of Fraternity in the Night’ The apostolic visit of Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi

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20 March 2019

At 1 p.m. on February 3, 2019, Pope Francis flew to the United Arab Emirates for his 27th apostolic journey. It was the first visit of a pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula, so close to the holy places of Islam: Medina and Mecca.

After the 12 Noon Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, and before going to Fiumicino airport, the pontiff reminded us of Yemen. He expressed his great concern about events in a country shaken by a war that has already caused thousands of victims and refugees, and where the most vulnerable are always the children. This tragedy has occurred in the same Arabian Peninsula. With this appeal, the pope wanted to give a clear sign of his familiarity with the geopolitical dynamics of the region, to which the Emirates themselves are no strangers.

The invitation to visit the country was extended to him in May 2016 by Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, Minister of State for Tolerance, in the course of her visit to the Vatican. In September of that year, the pope had received in the Vatican Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, son of the deceased Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, “father of the nation,” first president of the Emirates, and brother of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Emir of Abu Dhabi and president of United Arab Emirates.

La Civilta Cattolica

The prince spoke with the pope about the fight against fanaticism and about the culture of coexistence between Christians and Muslims. Along with a “carpet of peace” created by Afghan women in the context of a project of solidarity supported by the government of the United Arab Emirates, the prince gave him a book of photography about the archeological excavations on the island of Sir Bani Yas. Those excavations have brought to light an ancient Christian monastery, built in the pre-Islamic period on a small island not far from the coast of Arabia, officially recognizing a Christian presence in the region since ancient times.

The first time a pope visits the Arabian Peninsula

The pope’s plane landed around 10 p.m. at the presidential airport in the city of Abu Dhabi, which in Arabic signifies “land of the gazelle.” It is the capital of the Emirates and its second largest city, after Dubai. This land is part of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, founded in 2011, which counts about 1 million faithful – essentially immigrants – divided into 16 parishes, with 13 secular priests and 51 religious. The Apostolic Vicar Bishop Paul Hinder, has jurisdiction over all the Catholic residents in the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen. In the Peninsula there is also the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, which has jurisdiction over Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain.

The pope was welcomed as he came off the airplane via the passenger boarding bridge by the crown prince. Two children in traditional dress gave him flowers as part of a festive welcome. Awaiting him was the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmad el-Tayeb, who had landed shortly before.

The work of the visit began the following day, February 4. At 11:50 a.m., the pope went to the Presidential Palace, which occupies an area of 160,000 square meters. The palace, covered in spotless white, is surmounted by more than 70 domes with mosaics of glass and gold covering a surface of 18,000 square meters. The main door is imposing: it is 12 meters high and 8 meters wide, in steel and bronze. The pope’s vehicle was escorted by the presidential guards on horseback up to the main entrance of the palace. Here, Francis was received by the crown prince. With the presentations completed, the prince accompanied the pope to the hall specifically prepared for the private meeting.

In the afternoon, the pontiff moved to the Great Mosque of Sheikh Zayed, the most important place of worship in the country and one of the largest mosques in the world. It can host more than 40,000 faithful. The monumental complex reflects the desire to unite the cultural differences of the Islamic world with the historical and modern values of architecture and art. The edifice is equipped with 82 domes and about 1,100 columns, Moorish arches and four minarets. The pope was welcomed by Grand Imam el-Tayeb, by the Foreign Minister and by the Ministers for Tolerance and Culture at the entrance of the Mausoleum of the Sheikh, which Francis visited.

Next, the pope got into a golf cart together with the grand imam in order to reach the Courtyard of the Mosque, where, in the open air, a private meeting took place with the Muslim Council of Elders, an independent international organization that promotes peace in Islamic communities and based in Abu Dhabi.

The occasion for the trip to the United Arab Emirates was the Global Conference of Human Fraternity, promoted by the council. Before the arrival of the pope, 500 religious leaders from all over the world had already joined together. They had discussions in 21 workshops with 60 presenters, and 30 involving Christians, Jews and other Muslims.

With the meeting over, the pope, accompanied by el-Tayeb and the ministers present, went to the Founders Memorial, a national monument that commemorates the life, patrimony and values of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The building is very impressive and has in the center the installation The Constellation. Designed by American artist Ralph Helmick, it represents a three-dimensional and dynamic portrait of Sheikh Zayed. It is hosted in a pavilion in the form of a cube 30 meters high and contains 1,327 geometric forms hanging from 1,110 cables, which in perspective form the portrait of the leader.

The pope and the imam reached the podium together. After greetings from the prince, el-Tayeb and Francis responded.

‘Demilitarizing the human heart’

The grand imam first visited Francis on May 23, 2016, while their most recent meeting – a private visit at Casa Santa Marta – took place in October 2018. And el-Tayeb welcomed the pope during the apostolic visit to Egypt on April 28-29, 2017, on the occasion of the International Conference for Peace, organized by Al-Azhar and the Muslim Council of Elders. The pontiff was described by his host as “Great guest and dear brother.” The year 2019 marks the 800th anniversary of the meeting between Francis of Assisi with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, nephew of Saladin. The memory of this embrace from the past has become today the icon of a possible future.

“There is no alternative,” the pope said on that occasion: either “the civility of encounter” or the “incivility of conflict.” Future generations have to develop as trees that are well rooted in the soil of history, which, “growing up high and next to others,” transform “the polluted air of hate into the oxygen of brotherhood.” And it is precisely this “oxygen” that is the linchpin of the document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Coexistence, signed by the pope and the imam, February 4, in Abu Dhabi.

Before the historical signing, the grand imam and the pope gave their speeches. First, el-Tayeb began by speaking of his personal experience as a part of what might be called the “generation of wars”: from the Second World War up to the tragedy of September 11, 2001, his was a litany that poured forth into a desire for radical change. Addressing the pope and considering the plague of terrorism, he said: “My dear and merciful friend observed with sadness the suffering of humanity without any distinction or discrimination whatever. We are agreed that the heavenly religions have nothing to do with these movements, with these armed groups.” Then he appealed strongly to the Christians in the East: “You are citizens. You are not minorities. You are children of this land”; as well as to the Muslims who are in the West: “Make yourself a part of society, do it in a positive way so as to protect your religious identity, so that you respect the laws of these societies. You should know that the security of society is also your responsibility.”

In his speech, Francis presented himself as a “believer thirsting for peace.” And “in order to safeguard peace, we need to enter together as one family into an ark that can sail the stormy seas of the world, the ark of fraternity.” “Fraternity” was the key word of the whole speech and of the document signed. Francis places the foundations of it in God, who is “at the origin of the one human family.” The perspective of God, “the perspective of Heaven,” embraces and includes. No violence can be justified by religion. Plurality and multiplicity must be safeguarded. Fraternity has nothing to do with an easy syncretism. On the contrary, it is the “courage of otherness, which brings with it the full recognition of the other and his or her freedom.” In particular, religious liberty is precisely that which “sees truly in the other a brother or sister, a child of my own humanity whom God leaves free.”

The speech of Francis was not limited to the relationship between Christians and Muslims. Its bearing was universal, and the message geared toward a wounded world. “There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future. Religions, in particular, cannot renounce the urgent task of building bridges between peoples and cultures. The time has come when religions should more actively exert themselves, with courage and audacity, and without pretense, to help the human family deepen the capacity for reconciliation, the vision of hope and the concrete paths of peace.”

Religions therefore are called upon to be “sentinels of fraternity in the night of conflict,” which keep humanity from resigning itself to the dramas of the world and contribute actively to “demilitarizing the human heart.”

The pope then made the point of the need to work “against the logic of armed power, against the monetization of relationships, the militarization of borders, the raising of walls, the gagging of the poor.”

The document on fraternity

After the two speeches, the pope and the grand imam proceeded to the joint signing of the document in an another setting and in the presence of the participants of the International Conference on Fraternity[1].

An informed reading of the document will require further explanation. Here we limit ourselves to emphasizing some principal aspects of the document within the dynamics of the trip. We specify that his signature was a surprise to many, because the news had not been spread, nor was the text known beforehand. The essential contents of its message were therefore made known on the spot, thanks to a video image projected on to a large screen next to the Founders Memorial.

First of all, we note that the two leaders express themselves “in the name of God,” but they do not posit theological premises. They begin with the experience of their meeting and the fact that various times they have shared “the joys, sorrows, and problems of our contemporary world.” It is the situation of the world – and not a theoretical setting of interreligious dialogue – that has pushed Francis and el-Tayeb to say something together that may be a “guide for future generations to advance a culture of mutual respect in the awareness of the great divine grace that makes all human beings brothers and sisters.”

There is already here an important point about method: encounter is born from listening to reality. For this reason, the two leaders speak “in the name of” the poor, orphans, widows, embattled peoples, that is, the throwaways of the world. But, also “in the name of” liberty, justice, mercy, and all persons of good will.

The reading of reality manifests itself “in a global context overshadowed by uncertainty, disillusionment, fear of the future, and controlled by narrow-minded economic interests.” The cause is attributed to a “desensitized human conscience,” to “moral deterioration,” to “weakening of spiritual values,” and the consequences of “religious and nationalist extremism.”

The document courageously confronts the challenge of the religious illness that transforms holiness into the service of political action understood as a sacred cause. In its most extreme and virulent forms, it seems to push the adherent to a new “creation” of the world through violence and terror. Its presumed divine character would be constituted precisely by this. And the “martyr” venerated by this form of fundamentalism becomes the object of a collective cult that legitimizes and sanctifies the cohesive identity of the group.

Francis and el-Tayeb together reveal the perverse dynamics of this vision, and they definitively strip it of its religious character. By doing so, they bring to the center the moral need to protect the dignity of the human person. The pope and the grand imam want to save the religious sense from political and nihilist instrumentalization. As is well known, the document on fraternity has a significance that goes well beyond interreligious dialogue between experts. And it also goes beyond dialogue between Christians and Muslims: it is, in fact, a text of profound religious value and of great political impact.

The document marks a turning point because it essentially supplants the logic of “dialogue,” that is, the discussing of important topics, which, though a fundamental element, no longer appears sufficient. Here, what Francis said in an off-the-cuff greeting in August 2014, in Korea, during a meeting with the religious leaders of the country, comes to fruition: “Life is a long journey that one cannot make alone. One must travel with brothers in the presence of God: this is what God asked of Abraham. We recognize each other as brothers and travel together.”

The recognition of fraternity changes our perspective. It turns it upside down and becomes an important religious and political message. Not by chance, this brings us immediately to reflect upon the meaning of “citizenship”: we are all brothers and sisters, and therefore all are citizens with equal rights and duties; under its shade all enjoy justice. What disappears therefore is the idea of a “minority,” which brings with itself the seeds of tribalism and hostility, that sees in the face of the other the mask of the enemy.

Thus, on one hand, the Islamic world expresses a better comprehension of modernity; on the other hand, the message takes on global relevance: in a time marked by walls, hate and induced fear, these words turn upside down the logic of necessary conflict. Obviously, we are not speaking here of a completed reality, but of a direction in which to move.

The appeal is an “awakening of the religious sense.” Asked by journalists about the document during the return trip to Rome, the pope affirmed: “If we believers are unable to give each other a hand, embrace each other, kiss each other, and also to pray, our faith will be defeated.” Here Francis speaks of all “believers” and of “faith,” enlarging our perspective beyond that of the Catholic faithful.

The pope and the grand imam have taken a decisive step toward overcoming resentment and ideological pitfalls. They have beaten down the walls built by cultural warriors who crave a clash of civilizations thanks to an ideological reductionism of religions. The foundation of all is seen in a single expression: “The faith brings the believer to see in the other a sister or brother to support and love.”

From this conviction comes the correct attitude. Francis has never intended to tell Islam what it should be. He is not promoting a kind of “enlightened” reform of Islamic culture. Not at all. The document, on the contrary, was written by four hands because it is necessary to travel together. In a world where globalized divisions prevail, the fraternity of the one who recognizes himself a “son of God” becomes a form of critical thought.

How do we interpret the value of this document from Francis’ point of view? The pope is – in sporting terms – a creative player. His play on the field is at times characterized by originality and surprise. This brings him, in some circumstances, to respond to the appeals of the Spirit more than to codified rules and customs. He tends to be prophetic, and therefore to move the ball out of bounds even, to play the true game there. But it is not a game that one can play alone. And he has done this in different ways with Bartholomew, with Kyril, and now with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. The two players of Abu Dhabi pushed the ball out, but one saying he is speaking “in the name of the Muslims of the East and West” and the other “in the name of the Catholics of the East and West.”

For this reason, dissonant voices will certainly be heard. However, one can no longer turn back: the process has begun, the ball is in play. And the processes “must mature, like flowers, like fruit,” Francis said on the return flight. Moving and promoting such processes, the Catholic Church shows itself to be today, in our broken world, a powerful geopolitical factor for mending and regeneration based on the fundamental and universal values of fraternity. This document should also be understood as a fruit of the Second Vatican Council, as Francis emphasized.

A migrant Catholic community integrating differences

The next day, February 5, at around 9 a.m. the pope went to St. Joseph’s Cathedral, one of only two Catholic churches in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi (the other is the Church of Saint Paul at Musaffah). The original church goes back to 1962 and was built on the coast, on a piece of land donated by the governor of Abu Dhabi. The church welcomes Catholic faithful coming from every part of the world, so much so that the celebrations take place not just in Arabic, English and French, but also in Tagalog, Malayalam, Sinhalese, Urdu and Tamil.

Francis’ visit took place in private. While a hymn was intoned, the pope entered in procession and made his way down the central nave. A family gave him flowers, and then he placed them on the altar. After a moment of recollection, Francis blessed those present. Then he retook the road to the stadium for the celebration of Mass.

Having arrived at the Zayed Sports City, he moved among the faithful, both outside and within the stadium. It was constructed in 1979 and, with its 45,000 seats, is the largest multifunctional stadium in the Arab Emirates.

The emotion and festive atmosphere were palpable, both within and outside the stadium, with the 180,000 migrant Catholics present. They constitute 10 percent of the population, having come to the Emirates for work. With their diverse rites and languages, they are, nevertheless, united in the faith. The unity among people of about 100 different nationalities is a sign that is hard to find elsewhere.

Chaldeans, Copts, Greek Catholics, Greek Melchites, Latins, Maronites, Syro-Catholics, Syro-Malabars and Syro-Malankaras participated in the Mass. It was the largest public Christian celebration ever to have taken place on the Arabian Peninsula. Even the Prayers of the Faithful made evident the multiplicity of nationalities among the Catholics of the country, insofar as the intentions were pronounced in Korean, Konkani, French, Tagalog, Urdu and Malayalam. The Mass was celebrated in English and Latin. The Minister of Tolerance and 4,000 Muslims were also present.

The day was therefore dedicated to the Catholic community that lives in those lands and represents in itself a specific value for Catholicism in general. The Church in Arabia has a peculiarity based on the fact that in the big cities of the Gulf a special encounter between Christians and Muslims takes place: hundreds of thousands of migrant Christians constitute today the new face of the Arabian Peninsula. The Emirates cannot, in fact, do without Philippine and Indian manual labor. The local population is a minority.

For this reason, in 2015, the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi promulgated a law to protect all religions against hate and intolerance, but on the condition that the faith is professed with discretion. In this regard, it is good to specify that, because of the exceptional nature of the pope’s visit, he was given permission to celebrate the Mass in a public place, in the open air, something which is normally not possible to do: this also is a historical novelty. Generally, Christians are forced to celebrate inside church buildings. The government, because of the exceptional nature of the pope’s visit, chose to give this permission. Moreover, a paid holiday was conceded to the workers in the private sector who participated at the Mass with the pontiff.

The catholicity of these Arabian lands is multilingual, multicultural and multicolor; it has grown in an unorganized manner, starting from financial concerns that have pushed so many to leave their own native lands to find work. Thus the few parishes, always crowded, are shared by communities with different languages and rites, and thousands of baptisms are celebrated there every year. This multiethnic Catholicism, migrant and varied in its differences, already constitutes a strong message to Catholicism at a time when the temptations of identity and sovereignty politics are spreading in the Western world.

What is Francis’ message for this community? Thanksgiving for this peculiar and intense catholicity. As he said, “You who are here know the Gospel’s tune and you follow its rhythm with enthusiasm. You are a choir composed of numerous nations, languages and rites, a diversity that the Holy Spirit loves and wants to harmonize ever more, in order to make a symphony. This joyful polyphony of faith is a witness that you give everyone and that builds up the Church.”

It is in this situation that one may live the spirit of the Beatitudes: “To live the life of the blessed and following the way of Jesus does not, however, mean always being cheerful. Someone who is afflicted, who suffers injustice, who does everything he can to be a peacemaker, knows what it means to suffer. It is most certainly not easy for you to live far from home, missing the affection of your loved ones, and perhaps also feeling uncertainty about the future. But the Lord is faithful and does not abandon his people.” In particular, Francis pointed to two beatitudes to live out: meekness and working for peace. Let the Christian be “armed only with humble faith and concrete love.” This is how the Christian is a channel for the presence of God in the world.

* * *

At around 12 Noon, with the Mass finished, the pope left the stadium to make his way to the airport, where he found the crown prince ready to farewell him. After having said goodbye to the delegation of the United Arab Emirates, he was last to board. At around 1 p.m. the airplane took off for Rome.

And already Francis’ next journey has been announced, to Morocco, March 30-31. The “triptych” composed of Egypt, the Emirates, and Morocco – not counting the trips made to Turkey, Azerbaijan and Bangladesh – is a powerful appeal to our imaginations, all in order to prolong that embrace from 800 years ago between the Sultan and the Saint from Assisi.

[1] https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/it/travels/2019/outside/documents/papa-francesco_20190204_documento-fratellanza-umana.html