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Assalamu Alaikum

Assalamu Alaikum

The contrast could not have been sharper. Pope Francis is an epitome of simplicity and informality who prefers to be called Brother Francis. One enduring image of the Pope is that of walking off a bus clutching at his thick leather bag containing his books and official papers. 

For tens of millions of people the world over who saw the Pontiff’s arrival at the opulent residence of the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates on television, computers and mobile phones, it was an unbelievable sight.

The convoy of black sedans and SUVs in which he arrived at the white palace, where everything from sofas to wall paintings had a golden hue, had in the front soldiers on horseback, as described in Pushkin’s famous poem, “The Bronze Horseman”. 

As the artillery guns boomed 21 times to receive the Pope, I remembered the guns booming as a mark of respect to Mother Teresa, now Saint Teresa of Kolkata, just before her mortal remains were given a burial.

The nun, who was kindness personified, would have turned in her coffin when the guns boomed and the terrified birds in the vicinity flew helter-skelter. True, she had no control over the IK Gujral government’s decision to accord her a state funeral, the first nun ever to receive such a farewell.

Pope Francis in all his humility acquiesced in the kind of unparalleled reception he got in the UAE because it gave satisfaction to his hosts, the rulers of the UAE, one of the few outposts of religious tolerance and plurality in the vast peninsula that gave birth to Islam.

To quote the Pope, “what I found here was a welcome so big that they wanted to do everything, big and little things, to show that the Pope's visit was good," he said. "They wanted to make me feel that I was welcome."

The visit coincided with the celebration of the Year of Tolerance by the UAE and it was in response to an invitation that the Royal House of UAE extended to the Pope when one of the princes visited the Vatican last year. Small wonder that both the arrival and the sendoff saw the Sheikhdom breaking protocol after protocol.

Many compared Pope Francis’ visit to his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi’s visit to Sultan Al-Kamil of Egypt in 1219, i.e., exactly 800 years ago. The historic visit happened at a time when the crusaders were about to make another attempt — the fifth — to liberate Jerusalem from the clutches of the Muslims. It is the city from where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have ascended into Heaven. It is sacred to the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims.

Incidentally, during its long history, Jerusalem has been attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, besieged 23 times, and destroyed twice.   The oldest part of the city was settled in the 4th millennium BCE, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. 

By the way, Hindus consider Varanasi as the oldest city which never witnessed any mass migration of people. It is believed to have been set up by Lord Shiva.

Historians describe Saint Francis’ visit in different ways. Some consider it as a great success, while some see it as an example of misplaced faith. Whatever be the historian’s account, the fact remains that St Francis returned unharmed and the Franciscans were able to rebuild many of the monuments in Jerusalem that have withstood the test of time.

It was not for no reason that the Latin American cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio took the name of Francis when he became the 266th Pope. It was, therefore, quite appropriate that he quoted Francis of Assisi’s prayer many a time during his visit. 

Many rank the prayer as easily the greatest prayer ever composed. Explains Prof Omchery NN Pillai, India’s preeminent playwright and communication expert in his autobiographical work “It So Happened” (Media House):  

“The prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace”, summarises the doctrine of the Capuchins. When I went to the US for the first time, I visited the Mount Carmel shrine, near Berkeley University in San Francisco. It could not be called a church. Just a small shrine. There was only one priest. 

“The prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace” was inscribed on a marble slab there. When I read it, I had a special feeling. It was a different kind of prayer. Prayers are usually to pray for something. The entreaties to God are through hymns and praises of God.

“Om Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah

Sarve Santu Nir-Aamayaah

Sarve Bhadraanni Pashyantu 

Om, May All become Happy!

May All be Free from Illness!

May All See what is Auspicious!

“Prayers like the above may not be selfish in nature but they entrust to God the responsibility of looking after the whole world. The prayer of St. Francis of Assisi is different in nature. It appeals to God to “strengthen me” to serve mankind.

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; Where there is hatred, let me sow love; /Where there is injury, pardon;/ Where there is discord, union; /Where there is doubt, faith;   Where there is despair, hope; /Where there is darkness, light; /And where there is sadness, joy.

“This prayer reminds me of my responsibility to perform my duty. If I have to sow the seeds of love where hatred dwells, there should be love in my soul. If I have to preach the faith to the faithless, I must have faith in me”.

According to media reports, more than 1,80,000 people, including 4,000 Muslims, attended the mass the Pope led at a stadium named after the founder of the UAE. It was, arguably, the single largest show of Christian, rather Catholic, presence in the Arabian peninsula. Most of them were from the Philippines, India, Lebanon, Sri Lanka and many other countries. They were there to make a living and improve the lot of their families back home.

Significantly enough, anybody who had a pass to attend the mass — whether Christian or non-Christian — was granted paid leave to attend the mass. It was a kind gesture the Christian community would never forget. 

The Indian Catholics would have remembered in sharp contrast how the Narendra Modi government has been thwarting the attempt of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India to bring Pope Francis to India where his appeal is not limited to Catholics or Christians. 

To be fair, it must also be pointed out that External Affairs Minister Sushama Swaraj headed a large Indian delegation that attended the ceremony to canonise Mother Teresa at the Vatican. It also must be pointed out that every now and then the Sangh Parivar leaders question her motive in taking care of the destitute, the unwanted and the forlorn.

The Arabian Peninsula where the Christians had at one time a significant presence is today witnessing the diminishing of both their number and influence. In several Arab countries, the practice of Christianity is banned. Even sale of the Bible is not allowed. Not many people know that it is not the “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” which is the most banned book. That honour goes to the Bible.

I remember my brother-in-law telling me in the seventies how at the Dhammam airport in Saudi Arabia, the customs officials found his personal Bible in his suitcase and how they forcefully threw it into the dustbin. I also know how a Sister-in-law who served in a small government dispensary in a Saudi village spent her time reading the Quran as she had no access to the Bible.

Today technology has made it possible for anyone anywhere to download any version of the Bible into the hard disks of their laptops, tablets and mobile phones and the Saudi authorities can’t do a thing against such a practice. However, in the vast peninsula, public worship is a dream yet to come true for the Christians.

The Emirates is an exception. The gift the Pope received from the ruler when he visited the palace was a framed 1963 decree by Abu Dhabi’s ruler at the time donating the land for the first Catholic church in the Emirates. Today other denominations and faiths also have their religious places in the country. For instance, some of the churches in Kerala have their largest parishes in Dubai! The situation is quite different elsewhere.

Befittingly, the Pope signed the book of honour at the palace that he wishes the Emirati people “divine blessings of peace and fraternal solidarity.” Persecution of Christians is a reality in the area from which nations, supposedly Christian, have been shying away. 

Iraq had at one time a thriving Christian community. In fact, under Saddam Hussein, they enjoyed a measure of protection. Throughout his rule, Saddam’s public face, especially at the UN, was that of Tariq Azziz, who served as his foreign minister. The ascent of the Islamic State has proved detrimental to the Christians who have become easy targets.

There were many small enclaves of Christians throughout the peninsula which have either been destroyed or forcibly converted. At the same time, refugees from Islamic nations have been reaching the European and American shores in search of sanctuary and a better living.

Saudi Arabia cannot survive without American support and weapons but it does not allow anyone to practice his religion, if it is not Islam. The argument given is that Saudi Arabia is home to some of the holiest shrines of Islam and hence no other church or temple is possible.

That did not prevent Pope Francis’ predecessors from permitting the construction of a mosque close to the Vatican, the seat of the Catholic power. It is wrong to believe that persecution is a one-way street. Islamophobia has been growing in the West, especially since 9/11, though the growth has, of late, been stunted to some extent. 

There was a time when Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilisations” found resonance all over the world. Such a clash appeared to be imminent. The failure of the IS to capture the imagination of those on the Arab Street was an indication of fundamentalism losing its appeal. As a corollary, there are now fewer and fewer takers of terrorism as a political weapon.

Nonetheless, in the perception of many, not only in the West but also in secular India, Muslims are a despotic, irrational lot, unfit for democracy and unfit to be called a civilisation. What they forget is that Islam had united warring tribal forces into a mighty nation that at one time ruled most of the world in Asia and Europe.

Sheikhs and ruling oligarchies do not matter much on the Arab street. If the Saudi or the UAE rulers rule their countries, it is not because the people love them. It is because they have no other choice. Give them a choice and they will throw out the dynasties holding the reins of power. Where else in the world is the name of a family the name of a country as in Saudi Arabia?

Of course, the Pope was not there to berate the rulers or to advance western-style democracy that also gave rise to Hitler in Germany. However, that did not prevent him from showing the mirror to the UAE leaders on the disastrous war in Yemen.

The UAE is Saudi Arabia’s ally in the war that has already hit millions of its people. It would have been unpardonable for him if he were to ignore Yemen in his eagerness to please his hosts. The Pope was able to articulate the two options available to the world, co-exist peacefully and harmoniously or destroy one another in wars, pursued on one pretext or another! 

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 11th February 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 07)