February 15 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

9-UAE

Pope’s visit signals a new era in the Gulf

Andrew McFadyen reflects on Pope Francis' visit to the United Arab Emirates.

Pope Francis’ three-day visit to the United Arab Emirates last week was a historic moment for Christians in the Middle East. No previous pontiff has ever been invited to set foot in the birthplace of Islam.

This is a part of the world where many Christians are threatened by violence and persecution. Hundreds of thousands of Christians fled from Iraq during the sectarian civil war that followed the American-led invasion in 2003.

When the Islamic State group spread from Iraq into Syria in 2014 they were brutally intolerant of minorities—and indeed anyone who did not accept their crude fundamentalism. Christian villages where people had lived for generations emptied.

In Egypt, where Christians account for around 10 per cent of the population, extremists have bombed churches and attacked worshippers.

The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, was therefore making an important statement about religious freedom when he invited the Pope to visit his city and adorned it with Vatican flags, hung from streetlights beside the flag of the UAE.

The influx of migrant workers from countries like the Philippines, Sri Lanka and India means that the Gulf is perhaps the only part of the Middle East where the number of Christians is rising.

More than 100 different nationalities were represented among the crowd of 135,000 that celebrated Mass with Pope Francis at Zayed Sports City—the largest show of Christian worship ever seen in this region.

The Church has estimated that there are one million Catholics among the UAE’s expatriates, which form 90 per cent of its population.

The Pope’s visit comes at the beginning of what the government of the Emirates has declared a ‘Year of Tolerance’ and included tangible steps to promote dialogue.

Pope Francis and Ahmed Al Tayeb, who as the Grand Imam of Cairo’s Al Azhar University has been named as the world’s most influential Muslim, issued a joint call for freedom of belief.

There is still much work to be done. Dubai and, to some extent, Abu Dhabi have always been more open than other parts of the region because as ports, and tourist destinations, people of different faiths and cultures have mixed there for many years.

But in neighbouring Saudi Arabia religious freedom is severely restricted. Churches are banned and the public display of Christian symbols is prohibited. If they happen at all, clandestine services must take place privately in people’s homes.

In Qatar, where I worked as a journalist for Al Jazeera, a multi-denominational centre was opened with official approval in 2008, located deep in the industrial zone on the edge of Doha.

It is in the same district as the QDC, the only store in the country which is allowed to sell alcohol.

Out of respect for local sensitivities, the plain sand-coloured building does not outwardly display any Christian symbols. Visitors can see its tower on the skyline as they approach, but there is nothing to say it is a church. There is no cross or ringing bell to call the faithful to Mass.

At the entrance, people have to pass through a police checkpoint. Two uniformed officers man an airport-style metal detector and everyone’s bags are x-rayed.

The tight security is normal in this part of the world, but also necessary.

To my eyes, the scene inside was a riot of colour. In Scotland, even Catholic churches are influenced by an austere cultural Presbyterianism and tend to keep things simple.

At Our Lady of the Rosary, in Doha, clouds appear to drift across the sky blue walls and the sun shines down onto the altar from a great skylight.

Eight beautiful back-lit stained glass windows brighten the choir. Instead of hymn books, the words to the songs are animated on two large plasma screens like karaoke.

When I attended with my family, every one of the 2,700 seats was filled and by the time Mass started there were dozens of people standing at the back of the huge dome shaped hall.

Mass is celebrated here in at least 13 different languages including English, French, Italian, Arabic, Tamil, Maronite, Urdu and Filipino.

This diversity was reflected in the congregation. Western families in their Sunday best sat side-by-side with Indian women in beautiful saris and flip-flopped Filipinos.

It was a particularly moving experience because the church was the only place I ever saw people of all races and classes brought together on equal terms.

Cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha are among the most socially divided on earth.

The glamorous shopping malls, expensive hotels and new sports stadiums are built and staffed by migrant workers and there are huge issues to be confronted around human rights.

Citizenship in the Gulf countries is predominantly reserved for native born Muslims and the rule of law is not always applied equally.

Pope Francis addressed these concerns directly with a call for ‘societies where people of different beliefs have the same right of citizenship and where only in the case of violence in any of its forms is that right removed.’

The welcome extended to the Pope was a remarkable gesture of inclusion to Christians in the Muslim world, but the promise of a new era requires rights as well as tolerance.

— Andrew McFadyen is a journalist with Sky News. He has lived and worked in the Middle East.

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