Two weeks ago Pope Francis embarked upon a historic pastoral visit to Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. It was the first visit by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula. It is also providential that a pope named Francis should visit with the Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed exactly eight centuries after the historic meeting of Saint Francis of Assisi with Sultan Al-Kamil of Egypt in 1219AD.
In 1219AD Christianity and Islam were fighting against each other in the fifth crusade in an attempt to reconquer the holy city of Jerusalem. This time Pope Francis met with the Sheikh and religious leaders of Islam and other world religions to urge working together to reject the “miserable crudeness” of war there in the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam, with a strong denunciation of violence committed in God’s name.
At the invitation of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Pope Francis attended an interreligious meeting titled, “Fraternity Conference.” Before the interreligious meeting, he met for around 30 minutes with the Muslim Council of Elders. At the conference Pope Francis warned that the future of humanity was at stake unless religions come together to resist the “logic of armed power … the arming of borders, the raising of walls.” “There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future,” said the pope in front of the crown prince and hundreds of imams, muftis, ministers, rabbis and swamis gathered for the conference. He added, “God is with those who seek peace.”
His words at the conference explained that for peace to flourish among religions, there must be justice and respect for human dignity and freedom. “Justice is the second wing of peace. No one, therefore, can believe in God and not seek to live in justice with everyone, according to the Golden Rule. So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. Peace and justice are inseparable!” he said. He added that religions “should keep watch as sentinels of fraternity in the night of conflict. They should be vigilant warnings to humanity not to close our eyes in the face of injustice and never to resign ourselves to the many tragedies in the world.” He explained that at the heart of interreligious dialogue is the recognition of God as the origin and creator of “one human family,” that “He who is Creator of all things and of all persons wants us to live as brothers and sisters, dwelling in the common home of creation which he has given us.”
At the end of the interfaith gathering Pope Francis signed a joint statement “Declaration on Human Fraternity,” with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the revered over 1,000 year old center of Sunni Muslim learning. After the signing, the crown prince broke ground on a new church and new mosque, built side by side in Dubai and named in honor of Pope Francis and Imam el-Tayeb. These interfaith efforts reflect one of the sentences in the joint declaration that said, “The pluralism and the diversity of religions … are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.” A sentiment that parallels a concept in the Qur’an, in which God intended a multiplicity of world faiths. The declaration also added “therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion … must be rejected.”
Pope Francis also came to the Arabian Peninsula to bring support and succor to Christians who live and work in the United Arab Emirates. He celebrated a papal Mass at the Zayed sports stadium for over 135,000 people, mostly migrant workers from Asian nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines. It was not only the first papal Mass on the peninsula but the first public Mass ever in the country.
Kamel Abderrahmani, a 30-year-old Algerian Muslim scholar, remarked on the Holy Father’s words in his many talks while in Arabia. He said Pope Francis “is a teacher of love, goodness and beautiful words, those of God. Personally, I always thought he was one of the best popes the Catholic Church has ever had. Under his leadership, there is no Catholic who could harm others in the name of the Christian Faith because the Pope’s address is clear: violence is condemned, absolutely. … We are no longer in the Middle Ages and Western governments are not the Catholic Church. This means that there is no crusade in the name of the Christian faith in the modern age. Pope Francis has opened his arms to Muslims, offering brotherhood, love and peace. Muslims should not refuse this chance to build bridges of humanism together.”
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.