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Gold leaf on your camel burger: a visit to the UAE

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The Emiratis made sure we were well treated during the Pope's visit

One of the nice things about Pope Francis is that he’s not at his best with VIPs; in their company, he takes on a lugubrious look. With ordinary people, he’s different. When he said Mass at a sports stadium in Abu Dhabi for a congregation made up largely of migrant workers from southern India and the Philippines, his face lit up in the crowd. But it was because of the government that the Mass could take place.

At the end of the Mass, Bishop Paul Hinder, the Vicar Apostolic in the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, thanked Crown Prince Mohammed for allowing the Mass to happen, and the congregation broke into applause. It’s not like this across the border in Saudi Arabia.

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On the Sunday in Abu Dhabi, I’d been at Mass at St Joseph’s Cathedral, which is near Coptic and Evangelical churches. As a gesture of goodwill, the neighbouring mosque was renamed in honour of Mary and Jesus (“Peace be Upon them Both”).

There was an enormous queue of people waiting to have their names put in for tickets to the papal Mass, all visibly excited at the presence of the Pope. Compare and contrast with the last papal event I attended, in Dublin last August, where crowds were conspicuous by their absence from the main Mass. There was another difference: there was rain in Abu Dhabi the day before the Pope arrived and everyone got terrifically excited about this as a good omen. In Ireland, the Phoenix Park Mass was rained on unmercifully and no one thought of it as a blessing.

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The Pope’s visit was at the invitation of the Muslim Council of Elders, which held a conference on “human fraternity” to coincide with the trip and with the Pope’s meeting with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar from Cairo. There was an extraordinary number of religious leaders in attendance, Muslim and Christian. The clerical dra visit to ess was fabulous.

Of the Christians, the most interesting were those from churches in the Muslim world. I pounced on as many as I could, and found a remarkable similarity in response from clerics in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon. I asked whether events like this would actually affect those Christians vulnerable to attack from Islamists. The Lebanese and Syrians were emphatic that their problems weren’t from local Muslims, who, they said, treated Christian clergy with respect. Rather it was from outsiders who came with a very different outlook. “They are not, in my view, Muslims,” said one. A layman from Syria, with his bishop at his side, told me: “God could have made everyone the same, in race and religion, but he chose not to. So we should respect each other’s religions.”

Mind you, a cleric with close ties to Saudi Arabia was less effusive. I asked if the effects of the visit would be felt there and he said tersely: “Perhaps.”

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Like the Pope, I was a guest of the Muslim Council of Elders, which had invited a group of journalists and assorted thinkers. We stayed at the Emirates Palace Hotel, a fabulously extravagant place, where you need GPS to get to breakfast and gold leaf is everywhere. You get it in your mineral water (24 carat flakes) and on your camel burger. In my room was a huge gold box: inside was a black abaya and veil for me. It was actually rather becoming.

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One of our most interesting visits was to the Abu Dhabi Louvre, where we got an insight into the way religious tolerance is enforced in the UAE. We met a longstanding minister of state, Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, a shrewd and experienced man who remembers the UAE from the old, pre-oil days, and the impressive female minister for culture, Noura Al Kaabi.

Nusseibeh showed us around the Louvre galleries, where artefacts are displayed precisely in order to show the fundamental similarities between religious faiths. During our conversation afterwards, he declared that “tolerance doesn’t just happen, you know… and … it’s not just about oil.” He’s right: tolerance is government policy here. It’s taught in kindergarten, there’s a Minister of State for Tolerance and the Friday sermons in mosques are written by a central committee to make sure they’re on-message. Can you imagine if parish Sunday sermons were scrutinised by the government?

The UAE goes further: Noura Al Kaabi pointed out that it is engaged in reconstruction work in Iraq on sites destroyed by ISIS. And along with the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, the UAE government will also be funding the restoration of historic Christian churches next to it and possibly a Yazidi temple. This goes beyond tolerance: it’s an assertion of religious pluralism.

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At one point in our visit another woman minister, Reem Al Hashimi, came up to Nusseibeh and said quietly that she’d be joining us in a few minutes; she just had to slip away to pray. I felt a pang of envy: you don’t often hear ministers in Britain saying that.

Melanie McDonagh works for the London Evening Standard