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Courage and diplomacy in the UAE

The Pope chose his words very carefully in Abu Dhabi

It’s only because conditions elsewhere in the Muslim world are so much worse that the United Arab Emirates appears to be a land of “tolerance” and “coexistence”, as Pope Francis characterised it during his visit this week.

This was captured in the gift that the Crown Prince gave to the Holy Father – the notarised document from 1963 whereby Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi, gave a property to the Catholic Church on which to build a church. The gift was meant to highlight the contrast with the dominant country of the Arabian peninsula, Saudi Arabia, where Christian practice is illegal. Forget about a church – even being caught there with a bible or rosary is sufficient to end up in a religious jail. Still, tolerance for the Christian minority in the UAE remains a longstanding gift of the emir, not acknowledged as a fundamental human right.

The greatest recent breakthrough in Catholic-Islamic relations was Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address of 2006, much maligned at the time as provocative, but received in thoughtful quarters in the Islamic world as putting the focus on exactly the key question: the theological issue of whether God acts in accord with reason.

A year after the boldness of Regensburg, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited the Vatican in November 2007, and the following summer the king hosted an interfaith meeting including Christians and Jews. That conference was such a novelty that Abdullah had to hold it in the royal palace of Madrid – the gathering would have been illegal in Saudi Arabia itself.

Pope Francis prefers to speak diplomatically rather than theologically in ecumenical and inter-religious encounters, especially regarding Islam. So there was no chance that he would take the Regensburg route of asking what the status of religious violence is in Islamic thought – despite the bombing of a Catholic cathedral last week in the Philippines, or the forced exile of Asia Bibi from Pakistan, as jihadist mobs threatened to administer the death sentence lifted by the Pakistani supreme court.

Yet in his address in Abu Dhabi – the trip only included one speech and one homily at Mass – Pope Francis did not shy away from courageously insisting upon religious freedom, as he did during his visit to Egypt two years ago.

“Without freedom we are no longer children of the human family, but slaves,” Pope Francis said. “As part of such freedom, I would like to emphasise religious freedom. It is not limited only to freedom of worship but sees in the other truly a brother or sister, a child of my own humanity whom God leaves free and whom, therefore, no human institution can coerce, not even in God’s name.” That is an invitation to go beyond the “toleration” model that appears to be the best on offer in the Arabian world, toward a fundamental rights model.

Note well the appearances of the word “slaves”. That would have been carefully chosen. Aside from the churches built by the emir, the UAE is, in many ways, an oppressive place. In accordance with good manners, the Holy Father did not unleash the stinging condemnations he favours when speaking about the economy, but he did mention slavery twice.

Many of the million Christians in the UAE – from the Philippines, India and even Pakistan – live in plantation-like conditions and, while not strictly chattel slaves, are de facto in indentured servitude. “All persons have equal dignity and that no one can be a master or slave of others,” Pope Francis pointedly added.

And in case anyone missed the point about the abuse of foreign workers, the Holy Father made it explicit: “I look forward to societies where people of different beliefs have the same right of citizenship.”

A Catholic Filipino, even one who has worked for years in the UAE, is not eligible for any status. He must leave as soon as his employment contract concludes. There is no more inhospitable place for the foreigner, the sojourner, the migrant, the immigrant, than the Arabian Peninsula – unless, of course, he is rich.

The occasion of this fraternal encounter meant that Pope Francis had to bite his tongue on economic topics, including the inequality that the entire UAE economic model exists to promote and perpetuate – riches for the locals and rich expatriates, exploitation for the workers who – literally – bear the burden of the sun and the heat.

If you are going to bite your tongue, you might as well swallow it whole, and Pope Francis was the perfect guest, fulsomely praising the transformation of the desert fuelled by petroleum development.

“This country, in which sand and skyscrapers meet … [is] a place of development, where once inhospitable spaces supply jobs for people of various nations,” Pope Francis noted. The UAE would, of course, remain just a desert if the principles of Laudato Si’ were observed. It is – from fossil fuels to water desalination to air conditioning to luxury goods markets – a rejection of every single line of the Holy Father’s environmental agenda, all in the service of opulent living by the elite few.

But all that was left for another day, if ever. In Vatican diplomacy, environmental and economic sins can be overlooked if the local Christians are not tortured and killed.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of