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Visit by Pope Francis puts UAE's promotion of tolerance on the world stage

Visit by Pope Francis puts UAE's promotion of tolerance on the world stage

Last week, the UAE’s reputation as a tolerant safe haven for people of all religions, races, castes and creeds was thrust into the global spotlight with the visit of Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi – a historic occasion that marked the first time a leader of the Catholic Church visits the Arabian Peninsula.

According to UAE and Vatican officials, the visit served to highlight the various initiatives and policies that the country has undertaken to promote diversity in the country.

The visit came at a time in which the world – and the Middle East in particular – are suffering from the ills of sectarian strife, discrimination and even violence.

Among the many UAE officials to note that the visit of Pope Francis may help address some of these issues was Sheikh Nahayan Bin Mabarak Al Nahyan, a cabinet member and Minister of Tolerance.

Speaking to Arabian Business just ahead of the event, Sheikh Nahayan said that the “tremendous” Papal visit will not only be an opportunity for Catholics in the UAE to welcome their spiritual leader, but also “allow the world to appreciate the UAE’s contribution to pluralism and safe, peaceful prosperity.”

In his remarks, the Pope addressed the issues facing the wider region as well, calling for “the full recognition” of people across the region, a potential reference to embattled communities including refugees, stateless people and ethnic or religious minorities.

“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,” he said at last Tuesday’s Mass.

The UAE’s example

Notably, Pope Francis’ visit to the UAE came at the beginning of the Year of Tolerance, which was declared by the government late last year. In his remarks just ahead of arriving in Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis praised the UAE as a country that “seeks to be a model of co-existence, human brotherhood and encounter between different civilisations and cultures.”

More than 85 percent of the UAE population are expatriates, and about 1 million Catholics live in the country, or about 10 percent of the population.

“[The UAE is] where many find a safe place to work and live freely, while respecting diversity. I am happy to meet a people who live in the present with an eye to the future,” he said. “With good reason, Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the United Arab Emirates, of honoured memory, declared [that] true wealth lies not only in material resources, but the truth wealth of a nation lies in the people who build the future of their nation. True wealth is mankind.”

This message was one that was echoed by many of the estimated 170,000 people who flocked to Zayed Sports City to attend the Papal Mass last Tuesday, a fraction of the 1 million Catholics that call the UAE home.

“What a brilliant way to begin the Year of Tolerance in the UAE with the visit of the Pope,” Indian national Sebastian Thornton was quoted as saying by the UAE’s WAM news agency.

“We have more than 200 nationalities in this country and everybody is coexisting in peace and harmony.”

An important declaration

Although much of the public’s attention last week was focused on the Pope’s Mass and his meeting with UAE leaders such as Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the visit also included a more tangible step to help promote the values of tolerance.

Last Monday, Pope Francis and Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb – the imam of Cairo’s Al Azar, the most prestigious seat of learning in Sunni Islam – issued a joint call for freedom of belief. The document, signed by the two religious leaders was described by the Vatican as being “an important step forward in the dialogue between Christians and Muslims” and called for the promotion of the culture of tolerance and the protection of places of worship.

“It is… crucial to establish in our societies the concept of full citizenship and reject the discriminatory use of the term minorities which engenders feelings of isolation and inferiority,” the document reads. “Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action… the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion of culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept.”

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