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Pope in historic UAE visit urges faith leaders to reject war

Pope Francis greets Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, after an interreligious meeting at the Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Feb. 4, 2019. Pope Francis has asserted in the first-ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula that religious leaders have a duty to reject all war and commit themselves to dialogue. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Pope Francis urged religious leaders to work together to reject the “miserable crudeness” of war as he opened the first-ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam, with a strong denunciation of violence committed in God’s name.

In a keynote speech Monday (Feb. 4) to an interfaith gathering in the United Arab Emirates, Francis warned that the future of humanity was at stake unless religions come together to resist the “logic of armed power … the arming of borders, the raising of walls.”

“There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future,” Francis told Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince and hundreds of imams, muftis, ministers, rabbis and swamis gathered in the Emirati capital at a time when the UAE-backed Saudi war in Yemen has driven the Arab world’s poorest country to the brink of famine.

“God is with those who seek peace,” Francis added.

Francis’ speech, delivered at the Emirates’ Founders’ Memorial, capped a historic day that began when he arrived at the presidential palace for a welcome ceremony in a tiny Kia hatchback — only to be greeted by an artillery salute and military flyover by a country at war.

Even for a nation known for excess, the Emiratis’ red-carpet welcome was remarkable, especially for a pope who prides himself on simplicity. It featured horse-mounted guards escorting the pontiff’s motorcade through the palace gardens while the flyover trailed the yellow and white smoke of the Vatican flag.

Francis’ speech to the gathering of faith leaders was the highlight of his 40-hour visit to Abu Dhabi. His trip concludes Tuesday with the first papal Mass on the Arabian Peninsula, a gathering expected to draw some 135,000 faithful in a never-before-seen display of public Christian worship here.

Francis’ visit, 800 years after his peace-loving namesake St. Francis of Assisi visited an Egyptian sultan, marked the culmination of years of Holy See efforts to improve relations with the Muslim world after they hit a low during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Since then, religious fanaticism and faith-inspired wars have only grown around the globe.

The Jesuit pope capitalized on his relationship with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni learning, to make the historic trip. They found welcome in the Emirates, which prides itself on its tolerance in a region known for severely restricting religious freedom and is home to a remarkably vibrant Catholic community that by some estimates numbers 1 million faithful in a federation of 9 million.

At the end of the interfaith meeting, Francis and el-Tayeb signed a joint statement on “human fraternity” and their hopes for world peace, and then laid the cornerstones for a new church and mosque to be built side-by-side in Abu Dhabi. The document, in Arabic and Italian, describes itself as being written in the name of “all victims of wars, persecution and injustice; … and those tortured in any part of the world, without distinction.”

The United Arab Emirates is deeply involved in the Saudi-led war in Yemen and faces widespread international criticism for airstrikes killing civilians and the creation of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

As Francis began his trip, human rights groups that are banned from the UAE urged him to use his visit to press for accountability by the Emirati leadership for atrocities in the war in Yemen and its repression of dissent at home.

“Despite its assertions about tolerance, the UAE government has demonstrated no real interest in improving its human rights record,” Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Francis.

It was a reference to the UAE’s often-stated claims of tolerance — it has a minister for tolerance, is hosting the interfaith meeting Francis is attending and has declared 2019 to be its “Year of Tolerance.” That respect for non-Muslim forms of worship, however, runs up against the political reality of media censorship, repression of political dissent and bans on proselytizing and conversion for Muslims.

Francis cited Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya in his speech in which he made clear that “no violence can be justified in the name of religion.”

“Human fraternity requires of us, as representatives of the world’s religions, the duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word ‘war,'” Francis said. “Let us return it to its miserable crudeness.

“The time has come when religions should more actively exert themselves, with courage and audacity, and without pretense, to help the human family deepen the capacity for reconciliation, the vision of hope and the concrete paths of peace,” he added.

El-Tayeb, for his part, insisted to the audience that Islam is a religion of peace that values human life.

“All religions are innocent and free from terrorism and armed groups, no matter what religion or notion those groups follow, who their victims are, or what land their crimes were committed on,” he told the crowd gathered at the memorial as the sun set. “They are murderers and butchers, who are assaulting God’s messages.”

He added that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S., Islam was defamed by what he called the media’s misrepresentation of its true message.

“The Western media exploited the incident to show Islam negatively as a blood-thirsty religion and to show Muslims as savage barbarians who pose a danger and threat to modern societies,” he said in a lengthy speech quoting numerous Quranic verses about the value of life.

Francis used the speech to insist on greater religious liberty in the Emirates, saying freedom of worship was not the same as true freedom of religion. It was a pointed but subtle critique of his Emirati hosts, who do allow the 8 million non-Emiratis living in the federation to practice their faiths but with limits.

“Without freedom, we are no longer children of the human family, but slaves,” Francis said. True religious freedom “is not limited only freedom of worship but sees in the other truly a brother or sister, a child of my own humanity whom God leaves free and whom, therefore, no human institution can coerce, not even in God’s name.”

Francis also noted that while foreign laborers have helped turn the Emirates from a desert trading backwater into a global financial power, they are not necessarily made to feel welcome or become citizens. Human rights groups have long denounced violations of basic human rights and labor standards among the Emirates’ foreign work force.

“I look forward to societies where people of different beliefs have the same right of citizenship and where only in the case of violence in any of its forms is that right removed,” Francis said.
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(By Nicole Winfield; Jon Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Aya Batrawy and Malak Harb contributed.)

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14 Comments

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  • I wonder if they had to sign a document that they would not try to kill the pope while he was there, or are they trying to give them impression that they care what he thinks?

  • “Francis used the speech to insist on greater religious liberty in the Emirates, saying freedom of worship was not the same as true freedom of religion.” Good point, Holy Father. That could be true in the USA, judging from some of the comments I’ve been hearing about the NY abortion laws.

  • “Human fraternity requires of us, as representatives of the world’s religions, the duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word ‘war. Let us return it to its miserable crudeness. The time has come when religions should more actively exert themselves, with courage and audacity, and without pretense, to help the human family deepen the capacity for reconciliation, the vision of hope and the concrete paths of peace” – Pope Francis

  • “Without freedom, we are no longer children of the human family, but slaves,” Francis said. Indeed. Francis is spreading Good News! For he knows Christ freed us from sin, and the last enemy to be destroyed will be death, and he’s willing to go out and proclaim it. What a great Pope!

  • The UAE gave permission recently to construct a temple of an Indian tradition.

    I understand that the UAE public did debate that permission. Some said that the Prophet opposed polytheism, therefore the UAE should not give permission. Others differed. In the end the UAE did give permission.

    Maybe the UAE has a policy of reaching out to the non-Muslim demographic.

    For me, it is good news that there was a debate in a Muslim public. That Muslims could have a debate at all contradicts the linear view of history.

  • Of course the UAE wants to reach out to the non Muslim demographic. Most of their workforce are foreigners. Much of their blue collar work is performed by Indians.

    The fact that an absolute monarchy even entertains the idea of public debate is interesting. It is not usually done regardless of religion.

  • Be very grateful. Due to our Constitution you have both. The legality of abortion has in no way infringed on your right to practice your religion.

  • I am grateful to the founders of this nation. The knew about natural law and the right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.(Declaration of Independence)…” These rights come from “The Creator,” and were recognized by the authors of the Constitution, as well. The Little Sisters of the Poor object to the use of abortifacients in their health plan, and the US dept. of HHS couldn’t figure out a way to leave them out of it, when writing up directives on what they term “health.” They have infringed on the Little Sisters right to practice their religion. This is also my religion.

  • At the time the turncoat ex-Catholic Sebelius and her little crew concocted regulations implementing the Obama Administration’s decision that birth control was “health care”, they knew full well that the means to leave the Sisters and the other parties in the suit – including Protestant colleges – were available.

    When it got to the Supreme Court to their credit the justices smelled a rat and sent both parties back to supplement their briefs.

    The government returned, tail between their legs, and admitted they had never needed the cooperation of the sisters or anyone else.

  • The constant attempts to compel practitioners, nurses, and hospitals to allow and even participate in abortions against their beliefs infringes on their right to practice their religions.

  • Indeed! But our PA Attorney General has once again held up the capitulation from happening, by filing a suit against the new HHS rules. He wants it to go to Congress, he says. I don’t think they’ll be in any hurry to tackle that one.

  • He’s a political panderer.

    Congress will do nothing, and the Supreme Court will squelch this as it did last run.

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