It is too early to say if Pope Francis’s history making visit to the United Arab Emirates — the first by a pope to the Arabian peninsula — is a game-changer in a world in which religious extremism, politicised religion, and terrorism in the name of faith have become all too normal. But it certainly strengthens the case against a belief that has been around for a while now — that the world is in the midst of an inevitable and inescapable “clash of civilisations”. At a time of great strife in the Arab world, the visit was extraordinary messaging, not just by the Pope but by his hosts as well. Pope Francis, who is by the far the most unconventional head that the Catholic church has known, was in the UAE at the invitation of Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who has declared 2019 his country’s Year of Tolerance. He described the visit as a “landmark in the development of human relations and dialogue between different cultures”. In keeping with this theme, the kingdom has launched a series of programmes to promote tolerance and cultural diversity, enough for the Pope to praise the UAE as “a land that is trying to be a model of coexistence, of human brotherhood, and a meeting place among diverse civilisations and cultures”. Ahead of his visit, the Pope also underlined that faith “unites and does not divide, it draws us closer despite differences, it distances us from hostilities and aversion”.
For the UAE, which knows the economic benefits of diversity only too well, and has turned into a land of many faiths over the decades, the visit was not just about scoring a diplomatic point, but integral to the realisation, across the Arab world, in the time of ISIS, that extremism is the road to ruin. MbZ, as the Crown Prince is known, pulled out all the stops — the Pope addressed a mass where expatriates from India and the Philippines made up the majority of the congregation, and participated in an inter-faith dialogue with the Grand Imam of Cairo’s Al Azhar seminary, who was also invited to visit at the same time as the Pope.
In recent years, the UAE has kept pace with its changing demography to allow different religious practices and today boasts several Hindu temples and churches. The UAE’s ambassador to India has written in this newspaper that his country’s leadership believes that peace and prosperity are impossible unless the conditions for peaceful co-existence of all cultures and faith exist everywhere. That should be obvious, but all too often, these days, it has to be reiterated, and said out loud.