The first-ever papal visit to Arabia was a sign of increasing religious tolerance in the Muslim world. The Mass Pope Francis celebrated in Abu Dhabi, before 120,000 Christians, was the first public Christian liturgy on the Arab Peninsula since Islam’s rise in the 7th century.
But the hospitality shown to the Pope cannot hide the fact that Christian worship in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is heavily restricted; not to mention that Arabia’s biggest player, Saudi Arabia, doesn’t permit any churches at all. The Emirates (UAE) are also no exception in the Arab world when it comes to conversions from Islam to Christianity. It is simply forbidden.
“I am not aware of any Muslim country that allows full religious freedom,” said Bishop Paul Hinder, Apostolic Vicar for Southern Arabia, who served as Pope Francis’s Catholic host in the UAE. Nonetheless, there is reason to hope that the Pope’s visit marks a significant step forward for Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East.
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who heads the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and serves as the Custos, or Custodian, of the Holy Land, believes that Christian-Muslim dialogue has entered a new — and more promising — phase. “There is a before and after ISIS,” he said. “The Islamic-Christian dialogue began a long time ago, but it was very formal and general. With the appearance of ISIS, the dialogue became more concrete and more realistic. For all involved, it’s about stopping aberrant behavior and massacres in the name of religion.”
In practical terms, that means that Christians and Muslims must develop positive relationships in the social and political spheres; to counteract and ultimately defeat the deadly extremism of radical Islam, they must find ways to coexist in harmony. This new, pragmatic ‘dialogue of life’ must take place at all levels of society.
In that light, the Pope meeting a second time with Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar University and one of the highest authorities in Sunni Islam, has special meaning. The two signed the “Document on Human Fraternity,” pledging the two faiths to the pursuit of interfaith harmony. The declaration, the Pope said, was “made in the spirit of Vatican II;” with the agreement, ratified in front of the Muslim world, Christians can make a bid to become equals in the dialogue with Islam — despite their minority status.
Pope Francis went on to say that the Document was “born of faith in God who is Father of all and the Father of Peace; it condemns all destruction, all terrorism — from the first terrorism in history, that of Cain.” Upon his arrival, the Pontiff had already stressed that “no violence can be justified in the name of religion […] We need to be vigilant lest religion be instrumentalized and deny itself by allowing violence and terrorism.”
Though he did not explicitly mention the persecution of Christians by Islamist extremists, the Pope stressed the importance of religious freedom, explaining that “without freedom, we are no longer children [of God] but slaves.”
Christians are small in number in the Middle East, but as representatives of the Judeo-Christian tradition, they have a calling as peacemakers in their engagement with Muslims. It is likely that, behind closed doors, the Pope urged UAE leaders to reconsider their support of Saudi Arabia’s bloody war in Yemen. According to some estimates, that conflict may have killed as many as 60,000 people since 2015, the great majority of them non-combatants, including women and children. This ugly war is fueled by religious hatred.
It is my hope that this new chapter in Christian-Muslim relations, with both sides serving the “Father of Peace,” will flourish and bear fruit. The ultimate stakes are of the highest order: Muslim governments throughout the Middle East must take concrete measures to protect their Christian minorities; these rulers must guarantee the religious freedom of Christians as a fundamental part of their rights as equal citizens. Failing that, the Christian presence in the Middle East will continue to dwindle, and will be at risk to disappear altogether.
Will the Pope’s diplomatic feat in the UAE open the door toward a Christian-Muslim relationship of fundamental equality — a relationship in which Christians can insist on real freedoms? Or will the papal visit to the heartland of Islam — historic though it may have been — turn out to only have produced grand but essentially toothless symbolic gestures? Time will tell.
George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is the author of "The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact," and "Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy." He is chairman of Aid to the Church in Need-USA. Mr. Marlin also writes for TheCatholicThing.org and the Long Island Business News. To read more George J. Marlin — Click Here Now.