History was made this past week when Pope Francis became the first pontiff to visit the Arabian peninsula. And its significance goes several notches up as it takes place on the 800th anniversary of the meeting of St. Francis of Assisi and the Sultan of Egypt at the height of crusades. Coincidentally, 2019 is declared as the Year of Tolerance by the United Arab Emirates. As the Pope, often praised for his lack of showiness, arrived at the lustrous Presidential palace in Abu Dhabi in his humble Kia Soul car, in a convoy of much larger and opulent vehicles, it was the beginning of a new dawn.
There are parallels in the visits of Francis Assisi and Pope Francis. The former took the audacious decision to reach the door of the Sultan of Egypt for negotiation at a time when the crusaders were waiting to cross the Nile in their bid to capture Jerusalem. Tension was at the peak between the Christian and Arab worlds. Pope Francis’s visit too comes at a time when Islamophobia is soaring in the West and Christians in many parts of Muslim countries are persecuted. The UAE’s invitation to the Pope and the latter’s visit to the Emirates could be a model of peaceful dialogue in the midst of rising war cry.
As the festoons of UAE and Papal flags fluttered together from lamp-posts across the region, Pope Francis, addressing an inter-religious meeting, said: “We need to enter together as one family into an ark which can sail the stormy seas of the world.” The Pope gave a new perspective to religious behaviour when he said that we should be “purified from the recurrent temptation to judge others as enemies and adversaries.” Taking his peace efforts forward he signed a joint declaration with Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand Imam of Al-Azhar mosque, also known as the Al-Azhar University, in Cairo, considered the oldest and most serious institution of Islamic learning in the entire Arab world, rejecting violence and terrorism in the name of religion.
The visit of Pope, an ardent advocate of peace, has enormous impact on the Arab world, which is reeling under monstrous attacks by Islamic terrorists. The urge to leave behind religious intolerance was well articulated by the Prime M inister and Vice-President of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum: “We have learned from hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of refugees in our region that sectarian, ideological, cultural and religious bigotry only fuel the fires of rage. We cannot and will not allow this in our country.” Hence the invitation extended by the ruler of UAE to an ambassador of inter-faith dialogue is signal to a new era in the Arab world; it echoes the voice of a new generation that is tired of the radicalization of their religion by extremists.
Pope Francis, who prefers to be called a Brother, has charted out a new course in his inter-religious relationship. He has already visited over half a dozen Muslim countries and more are in the offing with a visit to Morocco scheduled in March. Making a bold effort to walk the talk, Brother Francis is trying to build bridges with a missionary zeal.(Published on 11th February 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 07)