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ROME – In yet another sign of Pope Francis’s consistent outreach to Islam, the Vatican announced Thursday that it had established full diplomatic relations with Oman, further extending the Holy See’s relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds.
In a joint statement published Feb. 23, both sides said the move was born of a desire to promote “mutual understanding and further strengthening friendship and cooperation,” and voiced confidence that the decision serves the interests of both nations.
They said that a Vatican apostolic nunciature in Oman and an Omani embassy to the Holy See would soon be established, and envoys named to fill the new posts.
With Thursday’s announcement, the Holy See now enjoys diplomatic relations with every country on the Arabian Peninsula apart from Saudi Arabia. In total, the Vatican now has diplomatic relations with 184 of the 195 nations recognized by the UN, which includes 193 member states and two observers, the State of Palestine and the Holy See.
Beyond Saudi Arabia, the nations with which the Vatican does not yet have full diplomatic relations include China, North Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Oman, a Sultanate, is bordered by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, as well as the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.
Pope Francis has made outreach to the Arabian Peninsula a priority, having visited the United Arab Emirates in 2019 and the Kingdom of Bahrain last November. In both places, he participated in high-level interfaith meetings aimed at promoting dialogue among religions.
In Abu Dhabi, the pope signed a joint “Document on Human Fraternity” with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, which has become the basis of his outreach to the Muslim community, and is often quoted by Francis when he visits Islamic nations.
Following the pope’s visit and the signing of the document, Abu Dhabi established a Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, an independent national committee whose members include Vatican officials, representatives of various religions, including Judaism and Islam, as well as peace activists and UN representatives.
Pope Francis has also been consistently outspoken about the ongoing war in Yemen, often condemning what he has said is the indifference of the world to the conflict, and lamenting the impact the violence is having on children.
In 2017, the Sultanate of Oman assisted in the location and rescue of Father Tom Uzhunnalil, an Indian priest who had been kidnapped in Aden, Yemen, and who spent 18 months in captivity before Omani authorities helped secure his release.
At the time, Oman coordinated with officials in Yemen to locate Uzhunnalil, who was considered a “Vatican employee,” and after the priest’s release, the Vatican formally thanked Oman for its role in the rescue in a public statement.
Like many other countries on the Arabian Peninsula, Oman is a majority Muslim nation where Islam has been declared the formal state religion, and which is governed by Sharia Law.
However, despite the enforcement of Sharia, Oman insists that religious freedom is also guaranteed, and that its Basic Law prohibits discrimination of any kind on a confessional basis.
The Catholic Church in Oman belongs to the Apostolic Vicariate of South Arabia, which is headquartered in Dubai, and which is currently led by Bishop Paolo Martinelli, who was appointed in May of last year.
There are just four parishes in Oman and 12 priests, yet the Vatican in a separate statement Thursday voiced hope that with the establishment of full diplomatic relations, “the Catholic Church in Oman, through priests and religious, will continue to contribute to the social welfare of the Sultanate.”
Oman has a population of roughly 4.5 million, mainly Arabs, but with a significant portion of foreign workers who come mainly from other Middle Eastern countries, the Philippines, India, and Pakistan.
Most Catholics in the country are foreign workers, coming either from the Middle East, the Philippines, and India.
Previously under British control, Oman has been independent since 1971, and functions as a monarchy with a sultan system, currently led by Sultan Ṭāriq bin Taimūr Āl Saʿīd since Jan. 11, 2020, who governs from the capital city of Muscat.
At an administrative level, Oman is divided into 11 different governorates, which are in turn divided into 61 provinces.
Its government operates with a bicameral system including a chamber of democratically elected officials, an advisory council of elected representatives serving 4-year terms, and a State Council, the Majlis Al-Dawla, members of which are named by the Sultan.
Like nearly all countries in the Persian Gulf, Oman’s economy largely hinges on the hydrocarbon sector, specifically the production of natural gas.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen