Pope Francis is the person closest to being a Dharmaraja today. He has no army. His domain has no international currency. He rules a postage-stamp-size state and yet, his visits to countries across the world, and his pronouncements on global issues, receive media headlines and global attention.
For example, his encyclical Laudato Si, (“praise be to you” in Latin), was debated by scholars and policy-makers across the world for its perspective on climate change, refugees, and the global system of production and consumption that is threatening life on earth. We have no right, he wrote, to exterminate other species that, by their very existence, also reveal the glory of God.
In 2018, he admonished the leaders of the World Economic Forum in Davos when he told them that we “cannot remain silent in the face of the suffering of millions of people whose dignity is wounded, nor can we continue to move forward as if the spread of poverty and injustice has no cause.” Pope Francis’s moral message is globally discussed for his statements are seen as being truthful and on behalf of a just order. In these morally uncertain times, he is regarded as a beacon who leads us on what is right and wrong, just and unjust. More than any other leader since Nelson Mandela, and before that Mahatma Gandhi, he is today’s Dharmaraja.
So, how should we view his visit from February 3-5, to the UAE?
The UAE is a modern Arab nation seeking to occupy a global niche as a country promoting tolerance. They are sponsoring an interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Christians to jointly combat religious extremism. 2019 has been designated as the year of tolerance. The UAE government website announces their goal to “eradicate ideological, cultural and religious bigotry in society” in pursuit of which they invited Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, to co-sign, and offer the world, a Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. This is an important step in inter-faith dialogue. It is a historic achievement and that it took place on the 800th anniversary of the meeting between St Francis and the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil of Egypt when, in the middle of the conflict, St Francis asked to meet the Sultan who received him with the utmost grace and courtesy, and must be applauded. For St Francis, it served as the inspiration for his prayer “Make me a channel of your peace”.
The visuals of the signing are remarkable in the warmth and brotherliness that they convey between the Pope and the Grand Imam. We see them greeting each other with a kiss, in the friendly Arab manner, and then laying the foundation for a church and a mosque that will be built side by side in Abu Dhabi. These pictures were beamed to billions across the world, sending out a message of fraternity very different from the images of hostility between the two religious that ISIS had earlier conveyed. In the ongoing dialogue for peace and harmony between two of the world’s largest religions, the papal visit was an important contribution. The UAE must indeed be complimented for convening the meeting.
The other significant achievement of Pope Francis’s visit was the open-air mass in Abu Dhabi. Upwards of 1,30,000 Catholics publicly practised their faith. To this big achievement must be added the small gesture by the regime, to rename the Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed mosque as the Mary, Mother of Jesus mosque. All these gains, symbolic, political and real, were because of Pope Francis. The UAE also gained considerable international legitimacy from his visit.
Pope Francis, however, had to make some compromises. The humanitarian disaster in Yemen that he has often spoken about as the great tragedy of our times, where millions face starvation and where women and children have been killed by advanced weapons used by the Saudi government and its allies, including the UAE, was only mentioned by him in Rome before he left. In UAE, he denounced the war only in general terms when he, at the Founders Memorial, asked us to return war “to its miserable crudeness. Its fateful consequences are before our eyes. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya”. He did not mention the role played by the UAE in the tragedy in Yemen. Diplomacy, or strategic thinking, meant that he had to keep silent.
He made another small compromise. This was more visual. The reception he received from the regime was fit for a secular head of state. Defence aircraft flying overhead, emitting smoke in the papal colours. A 21-gun salute. A motorcade, fit for a king, where his innocuous KIA looked out of place. The images somehow seemed out of place for a man who took the name of St Francis of Assisi for his papacy. The video of his arrival showed the Versailles-like grandeur of the Sheikh’s palace, incompatible with the philosophy of a man who berated the global leaders at Davos on the causes of poverty.
The question I am struggling with is: What should the Dharmaraja have done? Were the gains of his visit — the tolerance and freedom to practice religion — much greater than the compromises he had to make? Is a pure uncompromising position unavailable to a global leader? Must they always engage in a moral bargain between benefits and losses? Did Pope Francis make a defensible bargain? These are not easy questions to answer.
And I do not seek to judge him, which is why I referred to Dharmaraja. Yudhisthir, at the urging of Lord Krishna, Bhima and even Arjuna, spoke a half-truth to deceive Drona — that his son Ashvattama was dead. Drona, on hearing the news, laid down his arms having lost the will to fight. Was this a compromise similar to the one made by Pope Francis?
Yudhisthir was the epitome of virtue and truth in the Mahabharata. Drona came to him for the truth about Ashvatthama’s death, certain that Yudhisthir would not deceive him. He lied, or rather, told a half-truth. “Ashvatthama is dead”, he said, and then in sotto voce said, “the elephant”. By doing so, he saved his army from the unrivalled skill and wrath of Drona. But the wheels of his chariot that had been floating in the air because he was Dharmaraja dropped and touched the ground. Must the Pope’s visit to the UAE, because of Yemen, be seen in the same light?