The visit of Pope Francis to the United Arab Emirates, the first by a pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula, should not merely be seen as a glossy exercise in internationalist and interfaith tolerance. Experts are now predicting the near extinction of Christianity in the region of its birth and the celebration of mass by the spiritual leader of over a billion Catholics, in Abu Dhabi on February 5, might give this development the attention it deserves.
The mass is the only public event of the three-day visit. Pope Francis will be renewing acquaintances with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, who visited the Vatican in 2016. He will also attend a closed session with the Muslim Council of Elders, founded as a forum made up of ranking Islamic scholars and dignitaries to unite the faith and counter the region’s Salafist excesses after the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring.
In many respects, the Roman Catholic Church, with its doctrinal focus on marriage and family life and its distrust of relativism, enjoys a degree of pastoral kinship with Islam. But hopefully His Holiness will find time to acknowledge the unique political risks that come with promoting relative freedom of religion in a part of the world that has become markedly less sympathetic to tolerance of this kind.
As a matter of practice, Gulf states must balance Islam as an integral part of a country’s constitutional framework against the multiculturalism and multilateralism necessary to function in a globalized world, while developing post-oil economies. This is an alien concept to the largely post-Christian West, but normal in a region saturated in religious principle and obligation in all spheres of life.
The rise of fundamentalism has brought with it an increased expectation that no other religion apart from Islam be practiced on the Arabian Peninsula. Opposition to freedom of religion, along with alcohol availability, tourism and other so-called capitulations to Western culture, form part of the Islamist rallying cry against the current political settlement in the Arabian Gulf.
The spectacle of Pope Francis celebrating mass in front of 135,000 of the UAE’s 1 million Catholics in Abu Dhabi is a clear sign that such complaints are falling on deaf ears, however. Moreover, the country, which for centuries has stood on trading routes used by other cultures and religions, has a particular relationship with Christianity.
A hospital run by a Christian mission delivered babies born to the ruling al Nahyan family soon after oil was discovered. At the same time, land was granted for the building of churches, and the UAE’s founder, Sheikh Zayed, ordered that an ancient Christian monastery discovered in the emirate of Abu Dhabi be preserved as part of the UAE’s heritage. One of his sons, Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, has also attended midnight mass in Bethlehem.
But the overarching significance of the visit, despite the fact that Roman Catholics make up a small part of the region’s Christian population, is that it serves to highlight the appalling violence visited on the faith as a result of sectarian and fundamentalist excesses across the Middle East.
In Europe, a largely indifferent, post-religious public might prick up its ears when Islamists persecute minorities such as the Yazidis, or dynamite ancient sites of historic significance, but remains largely oblivious to the widespread persecution of a faith that helped lay the foundations of Western civilization.
Iraq, Syria and Egypt, the historic heartland of early Christianity, have seen numbers decline exponentially as Christians, caught between opposing militias and lacking official protection, have been faced with a stark choice: remain in the land of their birth and risk death, or leave and become part of a growing dispossessed and exiled diaspora.
Even though the papacy is facing multiple challenges – a global sex-abuse scandal, internal divisions over pastoral and doctrinal issues and near empty churches in what used to be Christendom – it still enjoys a moral authority recognized throughout the world.
The Gulf region gave birth to Islam and remains conservative and wedded to its faith. But the UAE in particular has acted as a haven for growing Christian observance in a time of persecution and deserves the recognition the Pope’s visit brings.
Martin Newland is a former editor of the Daily Telegraph in London, The National in Abu Dhabi and deputy editor of the National Post in Canada. He consults on media, risk and reputational issues.