ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — In an officially Muslim nation where Christians are welcomed as guest workers and free to worship, Pope Francis urged leaders of the world’s main religions to embrace a broader vision of freedom, justice, tolerance and peace.
Addressing the interreligious Human Fraternity Meeting in Abu Dhabi Feb. 4, Pope Francis said all those who believe in one God also must believe that all people are their brothers and sisters and demonstrate that belief in the way they treat others, especially minorities and the poor.
The Human Fraternity Meeting, which brought together some 700 religious leaders from Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu and other religious communities, was a centerpiece of Pope Francis’ visit.
In the presence of Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Egyptian Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar and chair of the Muslim Council of Elders, Pope Francis thanked the emirates for the respect and tolerance shown toward Christians, but later in his speech he called for more.
“A justice addressed only to family members, compatriots (and) believers of the same faith is a limping justice; it is a disguised injustice,” Pope Francis told the gathering.
Some 80 percent of the people living in the United Emirates, including almost all the Catholics, are foreign workers who have no right to citizenship, but are a key part of the country’s booming economy.
Sheik el-Tayeb, speaking before the pope, told his fellow Muslims to “embrace your Christian brothers and sisters … there are special bonds between us. Even the Quran speaks of these bonds.”
The imam insisted all those who believe in God must believe in the obligation to respect human life, which God created, and, he said, “the name of God must not be used to justify violence. God did not create us to cause suffering.”
Thus, “to recognize the same rights for every human being is to glorify the name of God on earth,” the pope said. “In the name of God the creator, therefore, every form of violence must be condemned without hesitation, because we gravely profane God’s name when we use it to justify hatred and violence against a brother or sister.”
But Pope Francis broadened that appeal as well, urging religious leaders to work together at “demilitarizing the human heart” and opposing all war.
“War cannot create anything but misery,” he said, and “weapons bring nothing but death.”
Pope Francis said he was not simply talking about war in theory, because “its miserable crudeness” and “its fateful consequences are before our eyes. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya.”
The war in Yemen began in March 2015. The international coalition supporting the government troops there is led by Saudi Arabia, with strong support from the United Arab Emirates, and the Houthi rebels they are fighting are supported by Iran. Both sides have been accused of serious violations of humanitarian law, including the indiscriminate killing of civilians.
The meeting ended with Pope Francis and Sheik el-Tayeb signing “A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.”
Muslims and Catholics “of the East and West,” it said, “declare the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.”
Witness to Christ with love
Meeting with tens of thousands of Catholics living in the United Arab Emirates, Pope Francis urged them to be meek, peaceful and express their Christian identity by loving others.
The UAE Catholic community, which numbers close to 1 million, includes foreign workers from roughly 100 nations, but particularly India and the Philippines. They filled the stadium at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City and the open spaces around the complex for Pope Francis’ Mass Feb. 5.
Paul Matthew, his 13-year-old daughter Meldy and 4-year-old daughter Michelle, were at the stadium early, the proud bearers of some of the 42,000 special tickets allowing access inside the stadium.
“We are very happy; it’s a historic moment,” said Matthew, who came from India five years ago and is involved with the “outreach ministry” of St. Paul’s Church, visiting the sick in local hospitals.
The United Arab Emirates is officially Muslim, but it allows members of other faiths to worship according to their beliefs. The Muslim dignitaries at the Mass were led by Sheik Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the government minister of tolerance.
“Meekness is important,” the pope said. “If we live in the world according to the ways of God, we will become channels of His presence; otherwise, we will not bear fruit.”
Return flight conversation
Pope Francis told reporters he is more afraid of the consequences of not engaging in interreligious dialogue than he is of being manipulated by some Muslim leaders.
He told reporters flying back to Rome with him Feb. 5 from Abu Dhabi that people are always saying he’s letting himself be used by someone, “including journalists, but it’s part of the job.”
“For me, there is only one great danger at this moment: destruction, war, hatred among us,” the pope said, explaining why he and Egyptian Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar, spent a year writing back and forth to finalize the document they signed Feb. 4 in Abu Dhabi on promoting “human fraternity” and Christian-Muslim understanding.
“If we believers aren’t able to extend a hand, embrace and also pray, our faith will be defeated,” the pope said. The Abu Dhabi “document is born of faith in God, who is father of all and father of peace.”
Pope Francis spent about 35 minutes answering reporters’ questions, although he insisted on responding first to questions related to the trip. That meant he put on hold until the end of the session a question about the clerical sexual abuse of women religious.
The women’s supplement to the Vatican newspaper printed a story in its February issue on the abuse of women religious. Asked about it, Pope Francis said, “It’s true, it’s a problem,” especially in some newer Catholic communities and congregations.