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Interview With Fr Thomas Sebastian

Interview With Fr Thomas Sebastian

IC: As the first Pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula, how do you see Pope Francis’s visit to the United Arab Emirates?

Pope Francis made history by his visit to the UAE from 3-5 February 2019.   He is the first Pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula. When he was about to embark on a historic visit to the UAE, he said that he would be visiting the country as a brother. In fact, he came as a brother of peace.

Pope Francis came to the UAE accepting the invitation of the His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. UAE Government showed extreme generosity and hospitality. Both the Muslim leaders and Pope Francis have begun a dialogue. It will definitely grow and bring fruits. The Muslims and Christians will come closer and respect each other. As the Christians in the UAE are all expatriates they need acceptance and support of the locals and the locals need the service and support of the Christians for further development of the country.

Pope Francis was courageous enough to say that there is no place for terrorism and violence. All have to work together for peace and travel the paths of peace together. Tolerance and coexistence are the needs of the day.

Pope Francis’ visit will definitely have global impact. As brothers, Christians and Muslims will shed out prejudices and feelings of enmity and can bring more religious freedom.

IC: The percentage of Christians in the Arab region is on the decrease. Equally important is that Christians are at the receiving end in some of the Muslim countries. What message does the Pope’s visit send out in this context?

It is true that the percentage of Christians in the Arab region is on the decrease. It is also true that the Christians are at the receiving end. The Pope expressed hope that in this country of diversity the Lord will not abandon his people. Welcoming Pope Francis, the UAE has become a role model to the world. The people of this nation, speaking various languages, discover that they all share the common humanity. The Pope’s visit sends out the message of acceptance, tolerance, understanding, mutual respect and peaceful coexistence. Pope Francis’ humility and gentle approach caught the attention of the world. He affirmed that all are beloved children of God.

Although the Pope’s homily was addressed to the Christians, the non-Christians too could draw inspiration from it. A life based on the Beatitudes brings joy that cannot be taken out. God will never abandon us and wishes to be in communion with us always.

In all the speeches Pope Francis left a note of hope, we can go forward as the Lord will open up a new way for us; he can even open paths in the desert. So there is no reason for worry. He reminded us of our call to holiness and the need for being ready to do good to those around us. When we possess humble faith, concrete love and meekness we will become channels of divine presence.

IC: In a region where there are restrictions on the practice of religion other than Islam, what impact will the visit have in the practice of other religions, especially Christianity?

The Christians enjoy a lot of freedom in the UAE. The Papal visit may cause other countries of the region with more restrictions to grant more religious freedom to Christians and people of other religions. This might happen also within the UAE as in certain parts there are restrictions.

IC: The visit coincides with UAE’s declaration of 2019 as the Year of Tolerance. The same sentiment was expressed by the Pope when he talked about the need to “enter as one family into an ark” which can sail the stormy seas of the world. Your comments?

UAE named 2019 the Year of Tolerance to reflect Sheikh Zayed’s vision of acceptance and tolerance. It is intended to strengthen the nation’s role of encouraging stability and prosperity in the region. It is also aimed at ensuring safety, stability and happiness of peoples across the world. It is done with the aim of solidifying the international role that the country plays as the capital of co-existence and meeting of civilizations. This year will honour Sheikh Zayed’s belief that the UAE should welcome all nationalities and religions. It is in this background we see the visit of Pope Francis to the UAE.

On 4th February 2019 Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar signed the Document on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”. This Document represents an important step forward in the dialogue between Christians and Muslims, and is a powerful sign of peace and hope for the future of humanity. Francis and Al-Tayyib have together indicated a way of peace and reconciliation on which not only Christians and Muslims can walk, but all people of good will. Both have expressed hope and agreed to seek and find a universal peace that all can enjoy in this life.

The joint declaration is a courageous and prophetic Document as it confronts, and calls by name, the most urgent issues of our day on which those who believe in God are encouraged to question their own conscience and to confidently assume their own responsibility so as to give life to a more just and united world.   With unambiguous words they declared that no one is ever authorized to exploit God’s name to justify war, terrorism or any other form of violence. Besides, they affirmed that life must always be safeguarded and, at the same time, the rights of women are to be fully recognized, and every discriminatory practice in their regard is to be rejected. In a friendly and fraternal atmosphere they shared the joys, sorrows, and problems of the contemporary world. Before humanity, wounded by so many divisions and ideological fanaticism, the great spiritual leaders demonstrated that promoting a culture of encounter is not a utopia, but is the necessary condition for living in peace and leaving for future generations a better world than the one in which we live.

IC: How do you compare Pope Francis, who is trying to connect with Muslims visiting countries dominated by them, with his predecessor Pope Benedict VI whose comment against Muslims became controversial?

It is true that the speech of Pope Benedict VI became controversial and sparked anger across the Muslim world although it was not intended to offend Muslims. Pope Benedict offered an apology and made it clear that the quotation from a medieval text he used does not in any way express his personal thought. The true meaning of his address, in its totality, was an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue with mutual respect. The Pope’s intentions were misunderstood, and so there were very violent reactions in many countries.

Pope Francis, who came to the UAE is really engaged in sincere dialogue in a fraternal spirit and with mutual respect. He was courageous enough to denounce violence, war and hatred in different parts of the world. His approach, I am sure will heal the wounds of the past. He came as a brother of peace and will continue the dialogue already begun. There is no doubt that the spirit of fraternity will grow among Christians and Muslims. The legacy of his visit and the memories of those he touched will linger for many years to come.

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