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Why Pope Francis’s Maiden Visit To The UAE Is A Significant Move Towards A Tolerant Society

HH Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, meeting Pope Francis during a visit to the Vatican in 2016.

Of tolerance, over the course of history, many have voiced inclusive standpoints. Mahatma Gandhi deemed that each is right from his own point of view, but it is not impossible that everyone is wrong. He believed that by cultivating in ourselves tolerance of other views, we acquire a truer understanding of our own.

Following the Year of Giving (2017), the Year of Zayed (2018), which was dedicated to advocating the values of the UAE’s founding father, was closed to the notes of Emirati singer Hussain Al Jassmi performing at the Vatican’s annual Christmas concert. Of his performance, the singer commented, “With tolerance and peaceful coexistence, we, leaders and citizens, honor Zayed’s vision.” Now, 2019 is heralded as the Year of Tolerance across the UAE. In January, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, issued eight principles of governance to guide UAE nationals and its 80% international residents through the new year’s theme. “Our society is a respectful and coherent one, bound by tolerance and openness,” he stated. “It distances itself from all forms of discrimination and bias. It is a disciplined society, committed to its promises, timelines, and covenants. We are modest about our successes, perseverant in dealing with challenges, charitable and generous in achieving the greater good, and open to everyone.”

Originally published in the February 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia.

The year launches with a historical visit. In December last year, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, had accepted an invitation to the UAE. The Pope’s arrival this month (February 3-5) marks the first time a pontiff will step foot in the Gulf. Of the visit, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nayan (who met the Pope in 2016 at the Vatican, where a memorandum of understanding between the two countries was signed) tweeted that it will “strengthen our ties and understanding of each other, enhance interfaith dialogue, and help us to work together to maintain and build peace among the nations of the world,” and ultimately set an ideal promoting the UAE as a religiously tolerant country.

From a universal standpoint, all United Nations member states adopted the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance in 1995. It promotes education as the most effective tool to counter intolerance. At the state level, it stipulates that economic and social opportunities are to be made available to all people without discrimination and underscores the media’s role for its potential to facilitate free and open dialogue. And yet, the present day has witnessed a surge in racism, xenophobia, extreme forms of nationalism, religious fanaticism, and social exclusion. Tolerance – as a universal, common value – is fundamental to nurturing an open and contented global society now, more than ever.

Last December, Egyptian journalist Nayera Yasser witnessed her country’s diverse reactions to the opening of the 7,500 sqm Cathedral of the Nativity – the largest in the region – featuring paintings of religious icons, spiraling wood pillars, and stained glass by some 40 artists. Built over two years, its cost is estimated at more than 215 million Egyptian pounds, donated by the government and armed forces. “The televised January mass was sandwiched between two violent events,” recalls Yasser. “One day ahead of the inauguration, a policeman was killed and two others were injured while trying to defuse a device, which had been placed near a church in east Cairo. A number of priests were also cornered and harassed during the same week in Minya.”

Yasser continues that the public was quick to comment on the grand mosque that was constructed in parallel and opened only one day following the cathedral’s inaugural mass. Al Fattah Al Aleem mosque can welcome more than 16 000 worshipers at a time. The new religious landmarks recall the coexistence and interfaith solidarity of Beirut’s Mohammad al-Amin mosque and Saint George Maronite Cathedral, built side by side. Optimistically, Yasser states that many consider Egypt’s new cathedral to be an indirect indicator of the government’s new policy regarding building more Christian houses of worship throughout the country.

Father Jean Druel, director of the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies in Cairo, says that to encourage tolerance, common citizenship – one that is not religion-based – is fundamental to fostering a more open-minded society. “More people in Cairo refuse to identify with a religion. Instead, they wish to be treated as citizens, equals before the law, not as primarily ‘Muslims,’ or ‘Christians.’” He adds that symbolic messages of the opening of the new cathedral (and an invitation to the Pope to visit the Gulf ) are “beautiful.” Looking ahead to His Holiness Pope Francis’s visit to the UAE, home to nearly a million Catholics, Bishop Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar of Southern Arabia (UAE, Oman, and Yemen), reflects on the complexities of today’s global society, “The Pope is a realist and knows that in a world of migration, human beings have to learn to live together, whether Christians among Muslims or Muslims among Christians. Even non-believers among other big religions have to coexist.” He considers the pontiff ’s trip – where he will meet with members of the Muslim Council of Elders and celebrate a public mass – an essential model for peace. “Without such gestures and bold steps to create encounters, humanity risks what happened in history, where we speak with arms rather than words.”

Mid-January, the Vatican published 500 pages on Pope Francis’s collected words on migration, a subject vital to his agenda since his election in March 2013. “Movements of people, although entailing challenges and sufferings, are enriching our communities, local churches, and societies in every continent.” With the Pope’s arrival in Abu Dhabi, these words from his new tome succinctly remind of the blossoming possibilities born from tolerant, interracial, multicultural, and religious societies that honor the freedoms of belief.

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