Pope's UAE Message of Human Fraternity

February 8, 2019


On February 5th, Pope Francis concluded a three-day trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the first of its kind for the papacy. The pontiff has made dialogue with all religious communities a hallmark of his tenure, and has been criticized for extending that courtesy to Muslim communities in particular. With this and the UAE leadership’s proclaimed “Year of Tolerance” serving as the backdrop, his visit to the region took on a veneer of critical importance. This trip was a chance for the pope to outline a vision of the world as bonded, rather than divided, by religion. It also offered him a chance to directly address religious leaders in the region regarding the UAE’s troubling human rights record and their involvement in the war in Yemen — a conflict many consider to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

In his public addresses in front of several hundred religious leaders and a stadium full of attendees, the pope spoke aspirationally both in favor of religious freedom and against the moral atrocities which result from a lack thereof. More important than flowery rhetoric and aspirational language are substantive commitments to act. It’s worth examining the possibility that any change in policy from the UAE and its ally Saudi Arabia may follow from the pope’s visit, and from the statement on “human fraternity” which Pope Francis joined in signing with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar mosque. Making particular mention of wars in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya, the pope said “war cannot create anything but misery, weapons bring nothing but death.” He also decried “the logic of armed power” and called for an end to religious-based violence, stating that “every form of violence must be condemned without hesitation” and that “no violence can be justified in the name of religion. As it currently stands, the content of those statements are severely undermined by the protracted wars in the region and the resultant ongoing instability which have devastated Muslim-majority countries, displaced their religious minorities and fomented inter- and intra-religious animus. Claiming the statement was written in the name of “all victims of wars, persecution and injustice” is rendered moot when one million Christian Chaldeans have fled Iraq and fractions of minority groups remain in nearby regions as a result of the UAE’s foreign entanglements. The declaration “that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism” is a platitude when considered alongside the 10 million Yemenis who now risk imminent starvation as a result of the UAE’s involvement in Yemen.

We are heartened by the announcement of plans to build a new mosque and church side-by-side in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi. Still, the symbolism of such an action is all which came out of the pope’s visit. Without serious commitments to change, the pope’s calls for all of humanity to join together and build a future in which “people of different beliefs have the same right of citizenship” will remain on the level of abstraction. The actual content of the statement on “human fraternity” will go unrealized, as would the radical religious freedom which would otherwise follow out of “the recognition that God is at the origin of the one human family,” and that, in this family, “all persons have equal dignity and … no one can be a master or slave of others.” As it should be, the true test of the importance of the pope’s visit will be whether those religious leaders to whom the pontiff directed his remarks will heed his words, and whether his aspirational message informs policy and practice which reflect a meaningful and universal religious pluralism. In many respects, the future of “our common humanity” depend on it.

 

Founded in 1988, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) is a national nonprofit working to promote and strengthen American pluralism by increasing understanding and improving policies that impact American Muslims.




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