ABU DHABI – Opening an historic visit to the heart of the Muslim word, Pope Francis on Monday pulled no punches in the United Arab Emirates, calling for true religious freedom while condemning the use of the name of God to justify violence.
“No violence can be justified in the name of religion,” he said. “We need to be vigilant lest religion be instrumentalized and deny itself by allowing violence and terrorism.”
“I would like to emphasize religious freedom,” he said. “Without freedom, we are no longer children [of God] but slaves.” One cannot proclaim fraternity, Francis said, and then act in the opposite way.
The pope also denounced the building of walls as well as what he called the militarization of the human heart.
His remarks came during an interreligious meeting at Abu Dhabi’s Founder’s Memorial in his first public remarks in the United Arab Emirates. Also joining him were the crown prince and de facto leader of the UAE, Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, and professor Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo and a key Islamic theologian.
The memorial is an installation dedicated to the founding father of the country, the late president Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
“We are here to desire peace, to promote peace, to be instruments of peace,” Francis said, speaking in a nation which, until December, was part of a coalition bombing neighboring Yemen.
An estimated nine percent of UAE’s total population is Catholic, representing some 900,000 people. Most, if not all of them, are immigrants, including roughly 60 priests who serve in nine churches.
He urged the 700 religious leaders on hand, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs to enter the “ark of fraternity” in the name of God in order to safeguard peace as one family, much like, according to the Old Testament, Noah put two of each animal species in an ark to save creation from the flood.
“The point of departure is the recognition that God is at the origin of the one human family,” the pontiff said. “Fraternity is established here at the roots of our common humanity, as a vocation contained in God’s plan of creation. This tells us that all persons have equal dignity and that no one can be a master or slave of others.”
To honor the creator, Francis argued, it’s necessary to cherish the sacredness of every person. Recognizing that every human being has the same rights, he said, is to glorify God.
On religious freedom, Francis said it must go beyond freedom of worship. Religious tolerance, he argued, is an expression of fraternity, and it cannot be replaced by a forced uniformity nor a “conciliatory syncretism.”
“What we are called to do as believers is to commit ourselves to the equal dignity of all, in the name of the Merciful One who created us and in whose name the reconciliation of conflicts and fraternity in diversity must be sought,” he said.
Being part of one human family does not mean giving up one’s individual identity, but instead demanding the “courage of otherness,” involving the full recognition of the other person.
“Without freedom we are no longer children of the human family, but slaves,” he insisted. “As part of such freedom, I would like to emphasize religious freedom. It is not limited only to freedom of worship but sees in the other truly a brother or sister, a child of my own humanity whom God leaves free and whom, therefore, no human institution can coerce, not even in God’s name.”
Francis also said the human family must hang together.
“There’s no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will be no future,” Francis said. “Religions, in particular, cannot renounce the urgent task of building bridges between peoples and cultures.”
Religions, he said, must help the human family fostering reconciliation, a vision of hope and offering concrete paths for peace, which can only come through education and justice.
Francis also said that he looks forward to “concrete opportunities for encounter,” not only in the UAE but the entire region, which he called “a focal point of the Middle East.”
“I look forward to societies where people of different beliefs have the same right of citizenship and where only in the case of violence in any of its forms is that right removed,” he said.
Finally, Francis issued a call for protecting minors, which, he said, must be a universal effort.
Coming back from Panama a week ago, Francis said that an upcoming February 21-24 summit of presidents of bishops’ conferences and other Church leaders would address, but not put an end to, the crisis of sexual abuse of children.
The problem of abuse, he said, “will continue. It’s a human problem. But a human problem everywhere,” a human drama the world needs to become conscious of.
“Even us, if we resolved the issue within the Church and becoming conscious of it, we may be able to help solve it in society, in families,” he told the journalists travelling with him. “But firstly, we need to become conscious of it, have the protocols, and move forth.”
On Monday, he noted that last year Abu Dhabi held the first Forum of the Interreligious Alliance for Safer Communities, on the theme of child dignity in the digital world. The event recalled one held in Rome earlier in 2018 with the pope’s support and dedicated to the protection of minors from all forms of abuse, including sexual.
“I assure [all the leaders engaged in this field] of my support, solidarity and participation and that of the Catholic Church, in this very important cause of the protection of minors in all its forms.”
Francis closed his remarks saying it’s necessary to grasp the “miserable crudeness” of the word “war,” the consequences of which are “before our eyes.”
“I am thinking in particularly of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya,” the pontiff said.
All four countries have been marred by violence: Islamic extremist groups such as ISIS decimated Syria and Iraq, while they were also being crippled by foreign actors, including Russia and the United States; and then there’s the case of Yemen, bombed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to the point that the country today is considered by the United Nations as the world’s worst man-made disaster.
As brothers and sisters, Francis said, the human family “willed by God,” should commit against the logic of “armed power, against the monetization of relations, the arming of borders, the raising of walls, the gagging of the poor.”
To oppose these forces, he said, the human family has “the sweet power of prayer and daily commitment of dialogue.”
Religious leaders gathered together in the UAE, Francis closed, can offer a “message of trust, an encouragement to all people of good will, so that they may not surrender to the floods of violence and the desertification of altruism.”
Religions, he said, cannot postpone their aid to the flourishing of the seeds of peace that are a fraternal living together founded on education and justice and human development rooted on inclusion and human rights.
Perhaps like never before, Francis said, religions are called to actively contribute to “demilitarizing the human heart.”
“The arms race, the extension of its zones of influence, the aggressive policies to the detriment of others will never bring stability,” the pope said. “War cannot create anything but misery, weapons bring nothing but death!”
During the event, the prince announced that together with the Pope and the Imam he would sign a “Human Fraternity Document,” describing it as a historic document on dialogue among the followers of different faiths. He also announced a new “Human Fraternity” award for people who work “tirelessly and ceaselessly to bring people together,” with the first such prize going to Francis and al-Tayyeb.
The imam said Islam’s recent experience brings home the importance of striving for peace, including peace among the followers of different faiths.
“We hoped the third millennium could bring the end of violence, terrorism and the killing of women and children,” he said. “But we were disappointed with the attack against the World Trade Center,” describing it as a “crime committed by a handful of criminals” that led the international media to describing Islam as a “bloodthirsty religion and Muslims as savage barbarians, a threat against humanity.”
Al-Tayyeb called for the region to “get rid of this culture of suppression of minorities,” and, specifically addressing Christians, said, “You are full citizens.”