4. Feb, 2019

Francis makes first papal visit to cradle of Islam



The Pope is seeking to turn a page in ­Christian-Muslim relations while also ministering to a unique, thriving island of Catholicism as he embarks on the first papal trip to the Arabian peninsula, the birthplace of Islam.

While Francis is building on two of his priorities with his three-day visit starting today to the United Arab Emirates — promoting interfaith dialogue and visit­ing the Catholic peripheries — protocol will likely dictate that he leaves other concerns behind.

The UAE’s support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and its problematic record on human rights will likely get a pass — at least in public.

Francis is travelling to Abu Dhabi to participate in a conference on interreligious dialogue sponsored by the Emirates-based Muslim Council of Elders, an initiative that seeks to counter ­religious fanaticism by promoting a moderate brand of Islam.

It’s the brainchild of Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the 1000-year-old seat of Sunni Islam learning that trains clerics and scholars from around the world.

It will be the fifth meeting between Francis and Sheik Tayeb, evidence that Al-Azhar’s freeze in relations with the Holy See sparked by Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 comments linking Islam to violence has thoroughly thawed. In a video message to the Emirates on the eve of his trip, Francis paid homage to his “friend and dear brother” Sheik Tayeb and praised his courage in calling the meeting to assert that “God unites and doesn’t divide”.

Al-Azhar praised the “deeply fraternal relationship” between its imam and the Pope, which is said to include birthday greetings.

Francis and Sheik Tayeb are tomorrow to address the human fraternity meeting that has drawn not only Christian and Muslim representatives but hundreds of Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist leaders. It’s all part of the UAE’s “Year of Tolerance” in a region otherwise known for severe restrictions on religions outside of Islam.

“It’s something new for the Muslim world, that within the discussion of dialogue, they’re talking about interreligious dialogue across the board,” beyond basic Christian-Muslim relations, said Marco Impagliazzo, president of the Sant’Egidio Community, a Rome organisation active in ­interfaith relations who will be ­attending the conference.

Francis’s other initiative in Abu Dhabi is a giant mass on Wednesday in the city’s main sports arena that is expected to draw about 135,000 people in the largest show of Christian worship on the Arabian peninsula.