Pope Francis is going to the Arabian peninsula. The announcement from the press office of the Holy See attracted significant attention, but the news did not dominate headlines, or garner the kind of polemical attention other trips by Pope Francis have generated (Cuba, with the tête-à-tête with Patriarch Kirill, set a high bar for newsworthiness). Nevertheless, the three-day visit to the city of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates on February 3-5 is truly historic: the first time a pope – any pope – will set foot on the peninsula.
Billed as a trip to highlight Pope Francis’s commitment to building a culture of encounter, and taking place under the banner “Make me a channel of your peace”, the visit coincides with a major international gathering of leaders in inter-religious dialogue.
Greg Burke, director of the Holy See press office, issued a two-sentence statement announcing the visit. “In response to the invitation of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, His Holiness Pope Francis will visit Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) from 3 to 5 February 2019, to participate in the International Interfaith Meeting on ‘Human Fraternity’. The visit will take place also in response to the invitation of the Catholic Church in the United Arab Emirates.”
There is, thanks to migration, a surprisingly large Christian population in the UAE, the Catholic portion of which approaches a million people, out of a total population of 9.4 million. Christians worship in more than three dozen churches, many of which have been built on land the Emirates’ rulers have ceded to purpose. The UAE – located at the south-east end of the Arabian peninsula and commanding the south-east coastline of the Persian Gulf – depends on foreign labour and expertise for its oil industry, other commerce, and general development. Rulers have long encouraged cultural tolerance and worked to combat religious violence.
Nevertheless, there is some resistance – mainly from Muslim clerics outside the UAE – to any non-Muslim religious activity and even presence in Arabia.
So, the news from Bishop Paul Hinder, OFM, the vicar apostolic for Southern Arabia, that Pope Francis will celebrate a public Mass in Abu Dhabi on February 5 is highly significant. “I thank the UAE government for their generosity; not only have they made the visit possible but have wholeheartedly given us a venue to celebrate Mass,” Bishop Hinder wrote in an open letter published in concert with the announcement of the papal trip. “I ask that we respect and cooperate with the instructions of the special team from our Church which is being put in place for the visit.”
Christians are not citizens of the federation. Officially classified as “guest workers”, they are – like the overwhelming majority of the UAE population – essentially migrants and semi-permanent expatriates.
Christians have no political rights in the UAE. “Christians are sojourners treated generously,” said Gerard Russell, the author of Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.
Russell, who represented Britain in the Middle East for nearly a decade and a half before working as a consultant for Quiller, told the Catholic Herald that there was a confluence of interests uniting the UAE leadership and Pope Francis. “The UAE are seeking to launch many initiatives,” Russell said. “They’re quite hostile to extremism and sectarianism. I think that might be why the UAE are interested [in the visit], and I think that goes for Pope Francis as well.”
Russell also said that the Pope was viewed quite favourably by the leadership and people of the UAE. “I think they see him as a respected world leader, who has the dignity of his office,” Russell said.
So dialogue and pastoral solicitude are the main purposes of the visit, and Pope Francis’s position in the world and in the eyes of the locals militate in favour of a successful visit.
After a year in which papal diplomacy has received sustained criticism – notably on the controversial deal with China and the failure of Vatican efforts to bring resolution and stability to Venezuela, whose social and political catastrophe seems ever more intractable – a high-profile win at the start of 2019 is certainly something Pope Francis and his aides would want. The very fact of the visit itself is already a significant diplomatic achievement.
The trip will not be Pope Francis’s first of 2019, either. In January, the Holy Father will lead World Youth Day celebrations in Panama. The Pope will return from the February visit to the United Arab Emirates with just a little more than two weeks to prepare for the gathering of the leaders of the world’s bishops’ conferences. There’s a lot riding on that, too.