Pope Francis headed to Arabian Peninsula for visit

Pope Francis is headed to the Arabian Peninsula – if he’s not there already – for a meeting with Muslim leaders and a Mass in United Arab Emirates. Francis announced his trip this morning on Twitter.

The trip is being done at the behest of UAE leaders, apparently, with Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE’s ambassador to the U.S., writing at POLITICO it’s a way to encourage religious harmony in the region.

The pope’s visit will send a strong signal across the region and world: People with different beliefs can live, work and worship together. Reverence, respect and compassion are core common values. Prayer is both uniting and unifying…

The pope’s visit this week will highlight one approach close to the center of the Muslim world. Today, the UAE is home to 200 different nationalities, more than 40 churches and approximately 700 Christian ministries. Sikh and Buddhist temples welcome multinational congregations. Last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke ground for a new Hindu temple. Evangelical Christian ministries abound in the country. The Jewish community is vibrant and growing.

Beyond ensuring an open environment for religious practice at home, the UAE also advocates for freedom of worship and interfaith exchange globally.

I am not Catholic – I’ve been to a couple Catholic funerals and visited the Vatican in 1998 on a high school trip – but I am encouraged by the meeting. It is a start in encouraging more tolerance between the major religions in the region which all come from a similar branch in the worship of God (Islam traces its roots back to Ishmael (Isaac’s brother), while Christianity is technically a Jewish cult because Jesus is the Messiah the Jews are waiting to deliver them). It would be nice if a non-Catholic leader or three were also part of the event – but it’s not surprising the Pope is the only Christian to be there. Protestantism is decentralized with no central Earthly leader, the Anglican community is split, and Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I is in Greece.

There is still a real opportunity with this meeting between the faiths but it depends on what happens afterward. It’s all nice to speak about “religious tolerance” but nothing is going to happen unless individual mosques and churches start promoting it on a regular basis.

Even Al Otaiba admits there is too much strife. Via POLITICO:

Across the Middle East, we face the menace of extremism. Radical interpretations of Islam represent a tiny minority of those who practice the faith. But often the shrillest voices shout the loudest – whether it is on TV, on the internet or in a mosque. They twist and obscure the fact that Islam is a religion of peace. As one article from Dabiq, the English-language magazine of the so-called Islamic State, declared to its secular readers, “We hate you, first and foremost, because you are disbelievers; you reject the oneness of Allah – whether you realize it or not.”

These extreme voices seek to incite crazed followers to do their bidding. They give rise to zealots like who carry out hateful, violent deeds against religious and ethnic minorities. Christian Coptic churches are attacked in Egypt. The Yazidi homeland is destroyed in Iraq. The Jewish Museum is bombed in Brussels. And fatefully, it is Muslims – Sunni and Shia – that suffer the heaviest price of all from the murderous fundamentalists.

Ignoring the threat or being complacent is too dangerous and will only feed the cycle of sectarian violence that has gripped the region for more than a generation. Removing the extremists by force is also not the answer as long as the poisoned ideology and the conditions that nurture it endure.

I don’t know whether anything will come of this meeting but it’s nice to see the various faiths coming together. Whether it promotes more “peace and tolerance” is anyone’s guess – and I’m not holding my breath because we live in a fallen world – but the meeting is a nice first step.

We’ll see what happens next, if anything.