ABU DHABI — A pope, a prince and an Imam walk side by side at an airport on the red carpet. It seems like the beginning of a bad bar joke, but instead, it was the start of a historic, first-ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula on Sunday.
It’s a subcontinent where the pope’s own Christian flock, despite having been rooted in the area for more than 2,000 years – longer, actually, than their Muslim neighbors, since Islam as a faith is six centuries younger – are often treated as second class citizens or actively persecuted, particularly in places such as Syria, Iran and Iraq.
Though many have questioned Pope Francis’s Feb. 3-5 trip to Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates to participate in an interreligious gathering organized within the frame of the country’s “Year of Tolerance,” others have praised it as a unique opportunity to offer a sign of fraternity and tolerance, and a reminder of Francis’s oft-repeated mantra that killing in the name of God is never justified.
The prince and de facto leader of the UAE, Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, and Professor Ahmed a-Tayyeb, Great Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo and a key Islamic theologian, welcomed Pope Francis to the UAE upon his arrival Sunday night.
The fact that this is arguably the least demanding trip of his pontificate – only two scheduled speeches in over 40 hours, one of them a homily – does not take away from the fact that it could have a long-standing impact on Muslim-Christian dialogue.
In a sign of friendship, the pope and the Grand Imam traveled together in a minivan to Mushrif’s palace, where both are staying as state guests. Throughout the visit, Francis will leave the traditional popemobile behind, favoring a small bus.
The prince and the Imam are seen as highly regarded figures within the Muslim world, and the fact that they shared the red carpet with the pontiff, together with the car, represents one of those occasions in which the meeting is the message.
According to Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, the papal visit to the UAE adds a new page in the country’s history of tolerance, carrying a “great humanitarian worth.”
The country has a Muslim majority population but around 10 percent are Christians, with an estimated one million Catholics – virtually all of whom, including some 60 priests, are immigrants from the Philippines, India and other places, working in the oil and construction industries or cleaning residences.
“The visit affirms to the world the UAE’s approach to tolerance and peaceful coexistence, the founding principles of the UAE since the founding of the union, guided by the legacy of our late founder Sheikh Zayed,” Gargash said on Twitter, referring to Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
Opening the “Global Conference of Human Fraternity,” attended by some 700 people from around the world and concluding with an interreligious meeting headed by the pontiff and the imam, UAE’s Minister of Tolerance, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, urged the world to join together in tolerance and fraternity to achieve peace and reduce political conflict.
“We live in difficult times with new and unforeseen challenges confronting local communities,” said Sheikh Nahyan.
“Many adults lack even the most basic literacy skills,” he noted. “Many children are not in school. Sadly, there are conflicts over geography, water, religion and political beliefs. But tolerance and human fraternity have the power to deal with these challenges.”
Nahyan said the UAE was honored by the visit of the Pope and Grand Imam, and that both are global figures for compassion.
“Tolerance and human fraternity have the power to improve health and safety,” Nahyan said in his opening address. “Tolerance and human fraternity can help us heal the environment. Tolerance and human fraternity will make us champions for human rights and obligations.”
Francis’s schedule includes a meeting with Al Tayeb, who also serves as the chairman of the Muslim Council of Elders, on Monday. Together they’ll close the conference at the Founder’s Memorial, an installation dedicated to Zayed, who’s credited with turning seven mostly rural emirates into one modern, oil-based country committed to religious tolerance, a contrast from Saudi Arabia’s extreme Wahhabism.
Also participating in the conference are delegates from other Christian denominations as well as Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist leaders. They were scheduled to explore topics such as interreligious dialogue, oppression of religious communities and ways to tackle extremism.
“Our responsibility is to work together under the banner of peace and preservation of human dignity,” Nayan said on Sunday.
The papal trip has been welcomed by locals, with people from some 200 nationalities living here and relatively tolerant of religious minorities. Despite this perceived tolerance, there are severe limitations to religious freedom, including the fact that Christians are not allowed to be public about their faith.
Many hope Francis’s visit will press for change, perhaps including opening a local office of the papal charitable foundation Caritas, present in over 100 countries.
On Monday, the pontiff will have a private meeting with the Muslim Council of Elders at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center. The body was created by the government and is presided over by the Grand Imam to promote tolerance and a pacific vision of Islam.
The behind closed-doors meeting will allow participants to speak freely, including prince Ghazi bin Muhammed bin Talal from Jordan. He and the pope met in 2017, when the King of Jordan visited the Vatican. Jordan is today one of the countries with the largest migrant population per-capita, hosting millions of Syrian refugees.
As Francis was headed to the airport, the pontiff’s Twitter account shared a message to his more than 40 million followers saying that he’s visiting the country as a “brother, in order to write a page of dialogue together, and to travel paths of peace together. Pray for me!”
Residents of UAE may feel those prayers got an early answer on Sunday, as the pontiff’s arrival brought rain. While that might be considered an annoyance many places, it was seen as a blessing here, where desert conditions and years of drought make fresh water a precious commodity.
Experts say many aquifers and wells in UAE have been depleted through overuse, and while the government is building more water desalination plants on the eastern coast, the process is costly and detrimental to the environment.