A Papal outreach in Arabia?

By Harry Hagopian
February 14, 2019

A caffeine-rich flat white coffee, a Catholic priest, the Pope and Abu Dhabi. Huh?  It was only a couple of days ago that I managed to fuse those four elements together in a long conversation that took place in a small café in London concerning the recent trip undertaken by Pope Francis to the United Arab Emirates. 

The official occasion for the pontifical visit, from 3rdto 5thFebruary 2019, was an interfaith conference (formally entitled ‘The Global Conference of Human Fraternity’) that mobilised together some of the illuminati from the Muslim and Christian worlds in order to build together further bridges between the followers of those two monotheistic traditions and to help push back the forces of radicalism, let alone defuse tensions when they erupt hither and yon. 

Despite the panoply of participants and speakers, the two indisputable stars of the event were Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad El-Tayyeb. The pontiff represented to a larger extent the Catholic Church worldwide whereas the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar represented to a far lesser extent the Sunni Muslim world. 

However, if one witnessed the events unfolding in Abu Dhabi – be they the white and yellow flags of the Vatican decked out everywhere in this Emirate (one of seven Emirates constituting the UAE) or the open-air mass celebrated by Pope Francis in a stadium that welcomed well over 120,000 faithful – it would have been clear that the conference was merely a means to an end. The real question on many peoples’ minds was whether the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, no meek lamb himself, could pull off a spectacular show of moderation, inclusiveness and hospitality during a Year of Tolerance by hosting the Bishop of Rome. And would the Pope – who lacks the disarming charisma of John-Paul II or the intellectual austerity of Benedict XVI – rise up to the occasion and carry the Catholics (and other Christians) with him?

As the first coffee gave way to a second one – served, incidentally, by an East European barista who was intent on discussing her post-Brexit residency rights with me – it became clear that neither one of us (neither the priest nor I) was totally sure how to depict this visit. I confided after a large gulp of my Flat White that I kept vacillating between moments of resplendent hope and pragmatic scepticism. And some time during the process of our brainstorming, I concluded that this historical trip to the Arabian Gulf represented a half-full glass and another half-empty one.

When the priest sitting in front of me frowned and reminded me that I seemed to be equivocating in my ecumenical viewpoints, I added that my 'sitting on the fence' was simply a way of saying that the visit in my opinion had both its credit and debit points. Let me outline some of these.

To start with, there is the obvious and primary fact that this was an exciting and inspiring visit for many. Imagine, a first visit by the Roman Catholic pontiff to the Arabian Gulf would have been unthinkable a few years ago. This was a taboo breaker of sorts and showed an attachment to interfaith dialogue by representatives of two great religions at a time when there have been recurrent tensions worldwide. 

Also extremely positive was the Human Fraternity document that was signed by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad El-Tayyeb. It called on people across the globe to unite to bring about inter-faith harmony and spread a vital message of peace. The blueprint aimed to "guide future generations" to advance a "culture of mutual respect" spanning all nationalities, backgrounds and beliefs.

A distinctly uplifting moment for me personally was the Pontifical Mass in terms of its peaceful elegance, with an eloquently simple cross behind the altar, an organisation of the event that was exemplary in its orderliness and a public affirmation of the Christian presence in these lands that gave birth to Islam in the seventh century.

However, alongside those large positive features, there were others that nurture a sense of scepticism.

First, it is clear that this visit would have been far more powerful in its potential symbolism if it had taken place in Saudi Arabia, and more particularly in Mecca, but I suspect there was a mutual understanding that this simply was not possible. Mind you, the visit to the UAE would not have taken place without a nod and a wink from Saudi Arabia anyway. However, I wonder if the Grand Imam retains the authority to speak on behalf of all Muslims, not least in view of the political leverage exercised over him by the Egyptian authorities as well as the views of some of his ulemas(scholarsin Islamic sacred law and theology)that are perhaps less inclusive.

Moreover, I wonder if this visit, and the co-signed document, will have much impact outside the narrow realm of the religious (or political) leaders who were present at the event. Memories are quite short, and documents are often redacted and signed only to disappear in the black hole of oblivion or dismissal once they have made an impact in the media. We had examples of this happening in the past, when commitments were undertaken and then forgotten, and I am unsure whether this would be any different. Any major event – a lampoon or a cartoon, a terror attack, a critical paper at a conference, could alas raise the hackles of one party or the other. 

The document also suggests that ‘the concept of citizenship is based on the equality of rights and duties under which all enjoy justice. It is therefore crucial to establish in our societies the concept of full citizenship and reject the discriminatory use of the term minorities which engenders feelings of isolation and inferiority.’ In my opinion, a difference should be made between 'political minorities' and the concept of 'dhimmitude' within Islam which considers Christians to be second-class citizens. Besides, the concept of ‘minorities’ does not apply to the GCC countries since Christians – with miniscule exceptions – are not citizens. The enforcement of minorities’ rights is far more relevant to the Middle East and North Africa.

Equally important is the hugely sensitive issue that has been an almost untouchable taboo to date: will there be any fresh jurisprudence on proselytism and apostasy as well as on the consequences of freedom of conscience? Asla Bibi’s case in Pakistan is a good reminder of this paradox that impacts many Christians.

More worryingly perhaps, how will radical Islamists react to this rapprochement? Conversely, how will diehard Evangelical Christians view it? Will it play into the hands of those who are unhappy with any rapprochement between the two traditions? Let us remember that Christians constituted 20 per cent of the population of these Levantine lands a century ago and now the percentages have plummeted alarmingly. In Iraq alone, there were well over one million Christians in 2003, whereas they are now far less than half a million. So what will be the reaction of the ordinary Muslim in a village in Egypt or Morocco (that the Pope will also visit in March) or the viewpoint of a Christian in the US Bible Belt to this event? Will it improve or exacerbate suspicions? 

Any reader with some honest understanding of the region would admit that many of the countries are run by dictators. Democracy is a slogan that is a far cry from reality, and the heaving prisons or mindless violence exercised by some rulers or their minions are a testimony of an unfettered authoritarianism that has worsened since the recent Arab uprisings. Let me therefore posit that the Pope and the Grand Imam kissing and hugging at every turn in Abu Dhabi is not truly the convincing argument necessary to sway people toward a better acceptance of the other.

Rather, for any likelihood of success in breaking down the barriers, this visit should first and foremost be characterised as being unreservedly apolitical and without association to the political designs of any country or their rulers. Its politicisation will cause a boomerang effect and result in more future damage. 

The decisive point for me today – as it has been for a long while – is that there should be a conscious effort to achieve equality before the law and this can only be done through a systematic and formal process of education in schools and public places as well as an application of the rule of law that would be applied equally to all Christians and Muslims alike. There should be programmes to teach and preach respect for all citizens – the concept of citizenship in a nutshell.

However, let me be clear in case there is any misconstrual of my reflections: I am glad the Pope went to Abu Dhabi, and am also proud that the Emirati authorities, helped by Bishop Paul Hinder, Vicar-Apostolic of Southern Arabia, excelled in their preparations. But this alone is not enough. There should be a concerted effort to show that the religious and secular authorities are convinced of the need to promote this vision. Any humanitarian cri de cœur, no matter how laudable, needs to be substantiated by credible and sustained means that undergird relations between the two faiths.

Let me also be frank and remind readers that the Western Christian history has often been unedifying in Arab Christian or Muslim eyes. When I think of the Great Crusades (1095-1291), I recall Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. I also think of the internecine wars whereby Western Christians were fighting (killing) Arab Christians on Arab lands. Mind you, Christians have a 700-year headway over Islam and that should perhaps serve as a teaching reminder to both traditions of the ills of war – be they in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Palestine or elsewhere today.

But let me draw back from the yellowed pages of history and focus instead on the present. 

Given that the UAE celebrates its Year of Tolerance in 2019, and given the good will that was generated by the papal visit, I hope that the GCC six nations will perhaps strive to resolve their differences in good faith and reactivate their regional organisation and cooperation. I find it somewhat unsettling for instance that the Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrainis seem to deal with Qatar as if it were the Sparta of the Gulf. On a political level, this is nothing short of bullying tactics that are self-defeating. But on an interfaith basis, how can Muslims found better relations with the adherents of another tradition, and how can Christians in return respond to such overtures and reach out to their Muslim neighbours, when they cannot treat their own with respect but spend enormous amounts of energy, money and wherewithal fighting each other instead? Incidentally, this challenge has for long been a mainstay for the followers of all three Abrahamic faiths.

I was born in Jordan, and I lived in a suburb where Christians and Muslims were ordinary neighbours. Our mothers spoke to each other over the garden fence. They drank their Arabic coffees together and our families visited each other during feasts like the Eid, Christmas or New year. Our next-door neighbour was a wonderful Muslim woman who would come to our house to collect the olives from our trees and then press them so we could share them in both households. There were so many signs of a normal reality. And then after years of neighbourliness and friendship, something broke – and that brokenness is what representatives of the two traditions should try to address and heal in earnest.

So let me go back to my last gulp of coffee. The event many of us witnessed earlier this month – whether in person in Abu Dhabi, or through the intense media coverage – represents for me two glasses. One is half full: the hope that came out last from Pandora’s Box. The other is half empty: the doubt that surely must have niggled Sisyphus after so many attempts with the mythic boulder. And the challenge we all face, Muslims and Christians alike, is to ensure that we truly believe in the half-full glass and reject the other half-empty glass that is still on the same table today. 

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© Dr Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as Legal Consultant to OTS Solicitors in London (particularly on Brexit and immigration issues). He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land (The Russell Press).  Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net -- follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian and on Facebook here: https://m.facebook.com/MENA.analysis/

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