Thousands of Catholic faithful, mainly service sector workers from the Philippines and other far-flung nations, gathered for an open-air mass in the Emirati capital on Tuesday to hear the words of Pope Francis.

The landmark three-day visit, the first time a Pope has set foot on the Arabian Peninsula, was made possible by authorities eager to promote the United Arab Emirates as a bastion of tolerance, and by a Vatican seeking to reinforce its hold on the faithful far from home.

“It is a big deal. It’s the Pope, it is like God is coming,” said Kim, a Filipino resident.

The visit comes on the heels of months of negative publicity for the Emirates, from reports on its role in the Yemen war to a Reuters investigation that found the UAE national security agency hacked the communications of human rights activists and American journalists. 

Over the past few weeks, the PR machine in the Emirates has focused its efforts on promoting the Papal visit, advertising it as a “collaboration between all those who seek peaceful dialogue and cooperation.”

The Muslim Council of Elders, founded just four-and-a-half years ago in Abu Dhabi, but with the participation of the historic Azhar University, was key in that collaboration. The prestigious center of Islamic learning put forth Grand Imam Ahmed El Tayeb as the counterpart for a summit with the head of the Catholic church.

The Grand Imam traveled from Cairo for the occasion, and on Monday signed a “Document of Human Fraternity” with Pope Francis, as a stated guide for future generations. 

The document stressed a number goals that will be non-controversial among traditional Muslim and Catholic audiences, such as upholding the family as the nucleus of society, protection of places of worship, and condemnations of terrorism. But it also upheld the right to freedom of expression and the concept of full citizenship, condemning the use of the label minorities as discriminatory.

The Grand Imam El Tayeb on Monday called on Muslims to embrace Christians in Muslim-majority countries. 

Interfaith diplomacy

The Muslim Council of Elders presents itself as an independent entity with a mission to educate the world on the “true teachings” of Islam, which they list as peace, tolerance, and intellectuality.

The group mobilized for the Papal visit, inviting hundreds of faith leaders, including Muslims and Christians, Hindus and Jews, for a conference to discuss principles for achieving human fraternity.

“We are [confronting] radicalization by showing fraternity, it breaks the radicalization speech,” said Dr Sultan Faisal Al Remeithi, the secretary general of the group, from his modern headquarters ahead of the visit.

This young organization has mainly focused its promotion of moderate Islam beyond the Muslim world, however, with the Grand Imam leading delegations to Colombia and various African nations. 

There is no apparent set of criteria by which its 15 council members have been chosen. They are a diverse group when it comes to nationalities, though they are all men and there is only one Shiite Muslim.

Remeithi, an Emirati national, also holds the position of executive director of publishing at the state-run Abu Dhabi Media. 

The council, in order to achieve relevance, faces major challenges within Muslim societies, according to Dr HA Hellyer, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Atlantic Council in London.

“At a time when the Muslim world is so fraught with conflict, one would hope that such a council of notable figures would be well-placed to mediate between various Muslim parties,” he told Asia Times. Such efforts do not appear to be on the agenda, and if they are, they have been extremely discreet.

For a council that brings together several noted figures in Islamic law, there do not seem to be any announcements related to jurisprudence, Hellyer said. 

The host nation, the UAE, has meanwhile enforced its version of Islam through strict controls on mosques and religious activities.

Emirati law prohibits preaching about Islam outside mosques, which are funded by the state, and a permit must be obtained before Quran memorization circles are formed. 

In a recent interview with the Associated Press, UAE Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan defended the country’s restrictions on certain groups and the state’s control on mosques. Regulations, he said, are in place to protect the country from “people who would want to advance their own agenda and hijack our religion and to distort it.”

However, the UAE prides itself on providing a secure environment for expatriates and locals who are abiding by rules of the country. Catholic migrant workers fit into that box.

To project itself as a religiously tolerant nation, Emirati authorities declared that Tuesday would be a holiday for private sector employees to participate in the Papal Mass.

Vatican stakes claim

While the UAE does not have an indigenous Christian population, it is home to hundreds of thousands of foreign workers belonging to various Christian denominations. For the Pope, this is a key community to retain and his visit to the Gulf aims to bolster their belief.

Dr Andrew Chesnut, the Catholic Studies chair at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the Pope believes maintaining good relations with the Muslim countries is in the best interest of the Church.

On the larger plane, the future of the Catholic Church is in Africa where Islam and Pentecostalism present stiff competition, which at times turns into violent conflict,” he told Asia Times.

“Proselytization is prohibited of course,” he added.

The Vatican, according to Chesnut, would like Catholic migrant workers in other Gulf nations, such as Saudi Arabia, to enjoy the same type of relative freedom of worship that exists in the UAE.

The Riyadh-based Arab News raised the possibility that Saudi Arabia could host a Papal visit as well. “We consider it a global model, so it can be adopted and implemented elsewhere,” the Elders secretary general Remeithi told the English language daily. 

In his opening speech at the “Global Conference of Human Fraternity” organized by the Elders, the minister of tolerance said that Pope Francis and the Grand Imam were examples of the moral force needed to meet the global challenges of the 21st century; both have stressed the importance of living together in peace.

Pope Francis in his speech to an inter-religious meeting on Monday addressed the most controversial issue surrounding his visit, the war in Yemen, where the UAE is heavily involved militarily.

The leader of the Catholic Church denounced the “logic of armed power” in Yemen and other Middle East battlegrounds. “Its fateful consequences are before our eyes. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya,” the pontiff said.

It is unclear what, if any, direct impact the work of the Muslim Elders or the Pope’s visit will have on Christians in the region amid the ongoing wars and the policies guiding them.

“Only time will tell,” said Chesnut.

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