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A Pope comes to Arabia: every grain of sand will turn into history

This visit is highly significant because Holy Father Francis comes to Arabia at a time when religious animosities have reached to the peak all over the world and the mutual communication has hit the nadir, though religion-based hatred and terrorism has nothing to do with religion per se but the causes are extraneous to religion.

A Pope comes to Arabia: every grain of sand will turn into history

By Joe Palathunkal
Lawrence of Arabia or Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888 – 1935) is the most prominent Christian name in the history of Arabia though the first Vicariate in Arabia was established in 1888 as the Apostolic Vicariate of Aden. But going by the temper and zest of the Catholics and all others of the peninsula it appears that on February 3, 2019, an Argentine will take the place of the British army lieutenant who became a legend even in his own life time.

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio born on 17 December 1936 to Regina Maria Sivori and Mario Jose Bergoglio in Flores, Buenos Aires, will touch down UAE as Pope Francis, history will definitely will change but with this 82 year old man who heads the nearly 1.5 billion Catholics may also change the history of outlooks and attitudes prevalent among two great followers of the two Abrahamic religions.

Ever since his papacy began on 13 March 2013 it was the heart-felt concern of Pope Francis to encourage dialogue between the followers of the three Abrahamic religions: Jews, Christians and Muslims.

On Sunday when he steps into the land of date palms at the Abu Dhabi airport as the first pope from Southern Hemisphere and outside Europe since the Syrian Gregory III, he will be marking one more first in the desert kingdom – the first pope ever to visit a gulf kingdom in history though Christianity is interwoven with the Arabian peninsula ever since the days of Genesis with Biblical sites like Eden and Ararat very much present there.

UAE (United Arab Emirates) is a federation of seven sheikhdoms and it has nine Catholic churches which has an international faith community comprising mainly from India, Philippines, Bangladesh, Europe and the Americas. Saint Mary’s Catholic church in Dubai is the headquarters of the Catholicism in UAE where people have already started selling memorabilia related Pope Francis and his February visit.

This visit is highly significant because Holy Father Francis comes to Arabia at a time when religious animosities have reached to the peak all over the world and the mutual communication has hit the nadir, though religion-based hatred and terrorism has nothing to do with religion per se but the causes are extraneous to religion.

The Pope makes it clear when he says: "We must not be afraid to say the truth, the world is at war because it has lost peace. When I speak of war I speak of wars over interests, money, resources, not religion. All religions want peace, it's the others who want war."

Francis’ visit will expose this hard fact which is hidden from the eyes and minds of the people at large who think religion is the cause of hatred, conflict, battles and wars. He comes to a land which had renamed a mosque in Abu Dhabi, Capital of UAE, as Mary, Mother of Jesus, Mosque on the order of the crown prince Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed who clearly enunciated the reason as to “consolidate bonds of humanity between followers of different religions”.

This visit will definitely strengthen those bonds in an unprecedented way because it is the most visible step to foster dialogue between religions without doing any harm to each other but rather enriching mutually in the process enabling the faithful of each religion to look at the other as brothers and sisters, instead as enemies and warring factions. That is the significance of the ‘now’ of Pope Francis’ visit.

This visit in the Year of Tolerance signals that merely tolerating is not enough but we have to welcome the other into our hearts as Pope Francis often says about the migrants and refugees whose number is swelling day by day. Of course, it will be a boost to interreligious dialogue which has the most visible symbol in the Argentine footballer who became the pope. When he attends the inter-faith conference in Abu Dhabi, his mere presence will turn into a dialogue that will have dialogue with the history of every religion to open channels of communication between the hearts and minds of the faithful of each creed.

The words of greetings to Pope Francis from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan speak volumes about the mood of the nation in this context of the dialogue: : "We warmly welcome you Holy Father, Pope Francis and look forward to the historic Human Fraternity Meeting between you and His Eminence Dr Ahmad Al Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar Al Sharif, in Abu Dhabi. We are hopeful that generations to come will prosper in peace and security." 

UAE without any native bishops or priests, nevertheless, has a million immigrant faithful whose pastoral care is in the hands of 60 priests hailing from India, the Philippines, Lebanon, Switzerland, USA, Kenya, Germany and other nations. It is indeed an international community of Catholics who themselves need mutual dialogue to strengthen their Catholic bonds.

When Pope Francis stays in UAE from Feb 3 to 5, every grain of sand in the desert kingdom will turn into the history of peace and communication between all the creeds of the world. And when he visits Abu Dhabi, the headquarters of the Catholic Church’s Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, which covers the UAE, Oman and Yemen and meets an international flock, this historic visit will herald to the whole world what poet James Kirkup prophetically wrote:

“Remember, no men are strange, no countries foreign...
Let us remember, whenever, we are told
To hate our brothers, it is ourselves
That we shall dispossess, betray, condemn.”

(Joe Palathunkal is Associate Editor, Living in Faith)

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