THE three-day visit by Pope Francis to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) could serve as a catalyst for religious tolerance on the Arabian Peninsula, the Bishop in Cyprus & the Gulf, the Rt Revd Michael Lewis, has said.
The papal visit has also drawn the attention of the world to the “vast numbers of Christians” — including Anglicans — who live and work at different levels of society throughout the region, Bishop Lewis said.
“The challenge the visit poses is turning a historic but short event to just one country into the catalyst for not just tolerance but mutual interest and serious engagement between Christians and Muslims in the peninsula that is the heartland of Islam,” the Bishop said.
There are about two million Roman Catholics living on the Arabian Peninsula, half of them in the UAE; the majority of them are migrant workers from the Philippines and India.
About 15,000 Anglicans and non-RC Christians, such as Pentecostalists, attend services at an Anglican church in Abu Dhabi, St Andrew’s, each weekend, and a new Anglican church — All Saints’ — is being constructed on Abu Dhabi island, and will be large enough to hold 4000 worshippers.
Bishop Lewis was represented at the papal events by the Senior Chaplain of St Andrew’s, Canon Andy Thompson, who joined the Pope and 700 other delegates at the interfaith gathering called by the international Muslim Council of Elders, and was also among the 120,000 people at the papal mass at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
The visit was the first by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula. During the visit, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, signed a joint declaration on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”.
The document called for the promotion of universal religious freedom, the protection of places of worship, and for citizenship to be granted to religious minorities.
In a speech to the interfaith gathering, the Pope said that he had come “as a believer thirsting for peace, as a brother seeking peace with the brethren”, like St Francis of Assisi visiting Sultan Malik al-Kamil in 1219, during the Fifth Crusade. “We are here to desire peace, to promote peace, to be instruments of peace.”
He said that religious observance needed “continually to be purified from the recurrent temptation to judge others as enemies and adversaries. Each belief system is called to overcome the divide between friends and enemies, in order to take up the perspective of heaven, which embraces persons without privilege or discrimination.”
On the return flight to Rome, the Pope told reporters that the document was the fruit of “a lot of reflection and prayer”.
“Both the Grand Imam and myself . . . we prayed a lot to be able to produce this document, because there is only one great danger in this moment in time: destruction, war, and hatred between us. If we believers are not able to give each other a hand and embrace each other, our faith will be defeated.”
He went on: “This document is born out of the faith in God, who is father to all, the father of peace. And it condemns all destruction, all terrorism.”
On the return journey, the Pope also admitted the truth of a report about the sexual abuse of nuns and religious Sisters by priests and even bishops. “It’s true; it’s a problem,” he said.