The recently concluded visit of Pope Francis to the Arabian Peninsula has evoked more interest than any of his visits to several countries around the world. This was to certain extent expected since he was the first Catholic head to ever make a visit to that part of the world where Islam was ‘born’ and took strong roots. For a very long time, people other than Muslims formed a miniscule minority of the Arabian population and therefore it did not attract much attention from the Catholic world. But the scenario began to change from the 1960s. After the discovery of large quantities of petroleum reserves in the Arabian Peninsula people from all over the world, particularly from south Asian countries began to flock to these Arab counties in search of employment, trade and commerce. And currently it is estimated that nearly a million catholic live in the United Arab Emirates.
In spite of such surge in Catholic population in the Arabian Peninsula in the last five decades, it wasn’t always easy for them to find their religious moorings. For not all the countries in the region were hospitable to the Christian believers and therefore received a little or no cooperation from the local authorities even to have a place of worship. But the winds of globalization began to sweep across the Arab nations and they began to open up their economies so that they could reap the benefits of modern developments. Along with came openness to accommodating other religious followers, consequently today you can find places of worship of Hindus, Christians and others in most countries.
A million Christian believers is indeed a significant share of the local population and their presence and contribution mostly in the service sectors have certainly earned them a respectable place. It is this new found confidence coupled with the positive attitude of the local rulers that have opened the way to the head of the Catholic Church to make a historic visit. And undoubtedly it has been historic in many ways.
The fusion of colours
The welcome that Pope Francis received at UAE was certainly momentous; and it will go down in history as something outstanding. The royal regalia were in full display throughout the welcome ceremony and it was indeed a moment of pride for all Catholics to witness their spiritual head being honoured in the best manner possible in a Muslim country. The Papal flag was fluttering all along and it was a delight to see many participants holding it aloft symbolizing their happiness of having their spiritual shepherd in their midst. It was as if the yellow and white colours merging well into the green creating a myriad of colours giving a new hope for humanity that what earlier seemed a distant possibility has now become a reality. Two major religious communities of the world, viz., Christians and Muslims, can live together with mutual understanding and respect, was the eloquent message sent out by Pope Francis.
If the colour green, so unique to Islam signifies peace and prosperity, the colour gold (yellow) of the papal flag symbolizes spiritual power. And to my mind it is no small coincidence that the coming together of these colours has the potential to create a new world order where religious hostilities give way to religious harmony, and civilizations meet not as rivals but as partners and different believers can face each other not as foes but as fellow pilgrims on this earth.
The meeting of hearts
One of the most absorbing moments of the Pope’s visit to the UAE was his fraternal embrace of the Grand Imam. In doing so the Pope walked his talk of coming to the Arab Peninsula as a brother. There couldn’t be a more defining moment than the leaders of two major religions of the world exchanging a kiss of peace – true and genuine gesture of concord. The Pope struck an instant chord with Dr. Ahmed Al Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar by addressing him as “my brother and dear friend.” And I am certain that this historic meeting of heads of two major religions in the world must have brought tears of joy to millions of followers of both religions across the world.
Interfaith Meeting on Human Fraternity
Pope’s trip to the Arabian Peninsula has also opened the door to interfaith dialogue, something very close to his heart. And UAE with its cultural and religious diversity provided the best backdrop to hold the ‘International Interfaith Meeting of Human Fraternity’. In fact Pope Francis described the UAE as a “country that is striving to be a model for co-existence, human fraternity, and meeting of faiths and civilizations.” In a video message released by the Vatican, the Pope emphasized that the UAE was a “country where so many people find a safe place to live and work with freedom that respects differences.” He said he was “delighted to be meeting with a people who live out their present and look forward to the future.”
Addressing the interfaith Human Fraternity meeting the Pope said that “God is with those who seek peace.” And he described himself as “a believer thirsting for peace” and he continued saying, “We are here to desire peace, to promote peace, to be instruments of peace.”
Pope for all people
Pope Francis is fondly called as the Pope for all people. This is because of his proclivity to bring the poor and marginalized people to the centre of his attention. With his pontificate the universal church has once again affirmed her commitment to those who are in the margins of the society and who need care and assistance. He has strongly defended the rights of the poor for a decent life and often denounced scandalous luxuries of the rich. He says, “be poor among the poor. We need to include the excluded and preach peace.” It is to be noted that Pope not only piously wishes these things to happen, but exhibits the gumption to exhort the world leaders to bring about a more egalitarian economic order, “There is a need for financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone. This would nevertheless require a courageous change of attitude on the part of political leaders.”
Pope Francis is also known for his concern for the protection and promotion of environment. He calls for harmonious relationship between human beings and the nature, “May the relationship between man and nature not be driven by greed, to manipulate and exploit, but may the divine harmony between beings and creation be conserved in the logic of respect and care.” His angst is more than clear when he says, “never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last 200 years.”
Pope Francis is candid in expressing his opinion on a wide range of issues that affect the world, be it political instability, social and religious unrest, violence and destruction of human life, economic injustices, lop sided development models, empowerment of women, abuse of authority in the Church and so on. In all his interventions one can see his eagerness to bring forth the values of Christ who brought salvation to human kind.
Pope Francis has made huge impact on the world with his ground breaking visit to the Arabian Peninsula. With this visit, his long cherished dream of bringing harmony among the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – has been given a jumpstart. And I think it is a curtain raiser in his relentless effort to build bridges among all the religions across the world – characteristic of a true Catholic.
(Email: firstname.lastname@example.org(Published on 11th February 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 07)