Dr. Christian Koch, Senior Advisor, Bussola Institute, Belgium
Pope Francis’s visit to the United Arab Emirates from February 3 to 5, 2019, the first of a Pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula and the wider Gulf region, can be termed historic and significant from several perspectives.
For one, the scope of the visit was broad and included not only a meeting with members of the Muslim Council of Elders, but also the Conference of Human Fraternity with more than 600 representatives of all kinds of religious groups, resulting in the Abu Dhabi declaration.
Second, the pontiff held a public mass for more than 125,000 worshippers, bringing together many communities which also call the UAE their home.
Third, and most importantly, the visit expressed the overall emphasis by the UAE leadership on issues such as moderation, tolerance and peace, which form their approach to the overall concept of cultural diplomacy. As such, it is important that the messages coming from Pope Francis’s time in the UAE are carried forward as a key element in the fight against extremism and radicalization.
At the outset, the visit by the pontiff to Abu Dhabi must be seen in the context of religious tolerance and cultural diversity long practiced by the UAE. Shaikh Zayid Bin Sultan Al-Nahyan himself ordered the establishment of the first Catholic church in the 1960s. Nearly five decades later, the arrival of the pontiff in the UAE came on the invitation of Shaikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and follows on the meeting the Crown Prince held with the Pope at the Vatican in 2016.
It is further a natural next step in a connection between the GCC leadership and the Vatican that stretches back to 2007 when Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud held a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. A direct result of that meeting was the establishment of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna, Austria, in 2012.
Continuing on the above steps, Pope Francis has made religious reconciliation and inter-faith dialogue a cornerstone of his papacy. With strong messages of mutual friendship, peace and coexistence and the rejection of violence, the pontiff was received with open arms and ears by the UAE leadership. Coming in conjunction with 2019 being named as the Year of Tolerance in the UAE, the Pope’s meeting with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayyeb. underscored the determination of all sides to work actively to promote the co-existence of religions without exception.
The visit was an essential element in the broader context of a clear message against radicalization and extremism. Thus, the Abu Dhabi Declaration issued as a result of the Human Fraternity Conference “resolutely declare(s) that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood …” and issued a call to “stop using religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism, and to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression.”
Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the Minister of State for Tolerance in the UAE, further underscored this point when he mentioned that the outcome of the Human Fraternity Conference would be instrumental in combatting the “destructive forces of extremism, terrorism, poverty, maladministration, ill-treatment of women, environmental abuse, illiteracy, prejudice and hate, scientific and logical ignorance, lack of sanitation and health care and greedy establishments that oppose the very idea of human fraternity.”
Beyond the symbolic nature of the visit, there is also a message of the growing acceptance of multiculturalism and multilateralism within the Arab Gulf region as an essential element in order to properly function in a globalized society. Within the GCC states, more than 200 nationalities can be found, with the UAE being the most prominent example. As such, promoting tolerance and religious exchanges is a natural extension of the UAE’s own path forward.
In addition to strengthening aspects of inter-religious dialogue, the other core message tied to the visit of Pope Francis is one of peace and resolving conflict. Here religious institutions and leaders play a fundamental role in reducing social tensions, tackling issues of migration and enhancing education development as a cornerstone of greater understanding. Nowhere is this more evident than in Europe itself, where religious communities played a crucial role in overcoming the debilitating conflicts of the 1990s in the Balkans, for example.
All of the above messages, whether in terms of religious tolerance, co-existence, moderation or peace form a part of the cultural diplomacy pursued by the UAE ever since its establishment. In order to overcome the obstacles of divisive identity politics which have impacted on the stability not only of the Middle East but other regions of the world as well, the UAE formed the Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy in an effort to promote innovation, common experiences and visions for a shared future. While the visit by Pope Francis can be seen as one element of this strategy, the UAE also sees the delivery of humanitarian aid, educational development and exchanges as well as the promotion of art, film and sports as equally socially and strategically necessary.
The opening of the Abu Dhabi Louvre museum, the holding of various art, music and literary festivals throughout the year, as well as the establishment of educational institutions such as New York University and the Sorbonne are all examples of a longer tradition and a concerted policy orientation that sees intercultural experiences as critical building blocks for more stable and tolerant societies. With many countries confronted by similar challenges and searching for medium- to long-term policy solutions, the UAE’s pursuit of cultural diplomacy has underlined the possibility of expanding a society’s capacity to absorb change. It is only through such a step-by-step evolutionary approach that successful efforts can be undertaken that prevent radicalization and extremism from taking hold.
The papal visit was thus the culmination of a strong commitment by many sides not only for wider and more constructive inter-religious dialogue but for greater contact between civilizations and bringing together societies of different beliefs in the context of full citizenship. At the same time, the messages sent from Abu Dhabi are not an end by themselves and should therefore be seen as a catalyst towards the development of broad governing principles that must be developed within the overall context of inter-faith relations and greater tolerance. Pope Francis has stated that “Favoring dialogue, in any form whatsoever, is a fundamental responsibility of politics” and he repeated the same message during his visit to the UAE.
On their side, the UAE leadership stressed its readiness to do its part. The 2019 Year of Tolerance, the visit by Pope Francis and all other aspects of the UAE’s Cultural Diplomacy Policy are integral elements in ensuring that statements and declarations coming from the UAE during the pontiff’s visit are indeed carried forward.