This past week, I delivered one of the opening addresses at a conference in Abu Dhabi dedicated to creating understanding and building relationships and mutual respect among the world’s religious leaders. The conference coincided with Pope Francis’ historic visit to the UAE and his signing with Al Azhar grand imam Shaikh Ahmed Al Tayyeb of a document committing them both to working to build “human fraternity.”
I was pleased to have been there and to have had the opportunity to take part in these events – because if I had to rely on the Washington Post’s non-account of the Pope’s visit, I would never have understood the significance of what transpired over those three historic days. The New York Times was the only US daily to cover the visit – and its treatment was mostly fair.
In the first place, the Pope came to the Arabian Peninsula to celebrate Mass in a stadium – with 35,000 in attendance inside the stadium and another 100,000+ assembled outside. This was too big and too historic to be dismissed. How big was it? Just ask the UAE’s nearly one million Catholics. For them, it was not only the excitement of seeing their beloved Francis, it was also a validation of their faith and as clear a message as could be ever sent that their freedom of religion is secure in the UAE. What they found especially heartening was the fact that the UAE government ministers attended the Mass and exchanged with others the “kiss of peace” as a gesture of solidarity.
These weren’t the first such signs of respect shown by the UAE for the Christian community. In the mid-1960s Shaikh Zayed built the first church for Catholic expats living in Abu Dhabi. There are currently 40 churches. And UAE government officials frequently attend services on Christmas and other special events.
On the day before the Mass in the Zayed Stadium, Pope Francis and Shaikh Ahmed cosigned the Abu Dhabi Declaration, entitled a “Document on Human Fraternity.” In that document, both clerics call on their co-religionists to “stop using religion to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism and to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression.”
In his statement before signing the Declaration, Shaikh Ahmed urged countries in the region to “continue to embrace your brothers from Christian sects everywhere, as they are our partners in the homeland.”
Pope Francis not only spoke out against the scourge of war, specifically mentioning devastating conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya, he also echoed the imam’s call for “societies where people of different beliefs to have the same rights of citizenship.”
The icing on the cake was the two-day-long conference on human fraternity – a gathering of 600 religious leaders and opinion shapers that concluded with the meeting of the Pope and Shaikh Ahmed. Among the participants were Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains.
Some Western observers have made light of these gatherings or have been cynical about the UAE’s creation of a Ministry of Tolerance, or the UAE declaring this to be an official “Year of Tolerance.” In my remarks at the opening of the conference, I questioned the arrogance that is at the root of this cynicism.
I attended the events in Abu Dhabi, with the clear recognition of the fact that just a century ago, the Papal visit, the Declaration and the conference, with its stated purpose, could not even have been imagined.
At the same time, this expanding awareness of the world has given rise to a new consciousness that has led us to create vehicles for change that never existed before to promote universal human rights, advance healthcare and protect the environment.
That was why the Papal visit and the coming together of religious leaders was so important.
Of course, one visit, one Declaration and conference will not produce the change we need. But they do serve to continue the expansion of our awareness of each other and build the relationships we will need to create the human fraternity that Pope Francis and Shaikh Ahmed envisioned in their joint statement.