Pope Francis, right, walks alongside the Grand Imam of Egypt's Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, as they arrive at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi on February 4, 2019. Photo: AFP / Vincenzo Pinto

Now that the Pope’s humble Kia Soul has been garaged and the detritus left by the adoring crowd of Christian faithful in Abu Dhabi has been cleared up, what is the real legacy of his historic visit to the United Arab Emirates, the first by a pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula?

Two things come to mind on sober reflection. The first is that, in a region rocked by conflicts that are in large or small part predicated on religious differences, a substantial effort has been launched to remove intolerance of belief from the calculus of international and intra-national disputes.

And next, the mistrust of Muslims by too many segments of society in the West may be more profitably addressed through an institution to be established in the Middle East itself. But of course, caution is necessary to prevent all that has been promised from dissolving into memories of feel-good bromides.

Discussions at the Muslim Council of Elders meeting and the Global Conference of Human Fraternity have, it is hoped, established a “new normal” – not just in interfaith and sectarian relationships, but also in patterns of social justice and policymaking on the part of political and religious leaders. The significance of Pope Francis’ visit was not just apparent in the pageantry attached to it by his hosts, but also in the comings and goings at the Human Fraternity meeting, where Protestant pastors and Catholic priests, Muslim clerics, a senior rabbi and representatives of the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist faiths joined together in attempts to untangle the doctrinal babel of triumphalism and misunderstanding that characterizes global religious practice.

The events in Abu Dhabi have crystallized and highlighted informal movements toward consensus – religious and political – that have hitherto remained largely in the shadows. For instance, on the sidelines at the Human Fraternity conference, Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, predicted more robust relations between Jews and Muslims and spoke about growing familiarity between Arab rulers in the Gulf region and Israel in the face of perceived Iranian expansionism.

The UAE has been adept at hosting institutions and events relevant to the global and regional zeitgeist. The International Renewable Energy Agency, situated in Abu Dhabi, has become a focus for policy on renewables and the fight against climate change. The Abu Dhabi-based Muslim Council of Elders is a forum for establishing a moderate Islamic consensus.

The promised Abrahamic Family House museum in the UAE capital will arguably be the first institution in the modern age dedicated explicitly to recognizing commonalities among Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Now, the promised Abrahamic Family House museum in the UAE capital will arguably be the first institution in the modern age dedicated explicitly to recognizing commonalities among Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is all the more significant that this theological bridge-building should take place in the Arabian Peninsula – a part of the world more usually blamed, rightly or wrongly, for religious intolerance – rather than the West, which claims the mantle of liberal forbearance toward all, but has in recent years fallen from its own standards.

In the UAE today, moreover, it is now normal for local media to report on the presence of a synagogue in Dubai, something largely avoided for many years. Yet it will be interesting to see how the same media cover ongoing Israeli participation in international sporting events, from judo to swimming.

Commentators, especially in the West, will be tempted to dismiss the document signed by Pope Francis and Dr Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, as another cuddly communiqué issued by well-meaning senior clerics. But these two signatories hold in their hands the pastoral care and belief systems of millions of moderate Christians and Muslims worldwide. Their communiqué is a statement not just about religious harmony and joint values, but by extension about politics, economics and social justice. It firmly places religious extremists outside the tent, but also demands that official policy reflect these aspirations.

Regional governments can be badly served by tiers of civil servants and advisers, who often choose to err on the side of caution and cleave to positions that their respective leaderships may have abandoned. There is frequently a “cloud layer” of risk-averse officialdom hovering over matters of fresh policymaking that can obscure the actual will of the leadership. This is partly why the implications of the final statement by the Grand Imam and the Pope require ongoing official nurture and support, rather than retrospective self-congratulation.

Some provisions, governing for instance the rights of women, the protection of places of worship, and freedom of “belief, thought, expression and action,” can only be truly realized in the realm of “secular” policymaking. The protection of the rights of the marginalized and oppressed, the statement says, “must be guaranteed through strict legislation and the implementation of the relevant international agreements.”

The statement is not just an in-house discussion between religious leaders but also a challenge to regional governments, which in some cases ceded the post-Arab Spring political and social narratives to Islamist fundamentalists.

In a similar way, the papacy retains enough moral authority to influence politics and opinion in its sphere. Western critics of the Catholic Church describe it as an outdated guardian of equally outdated moral precepts, without taking account of the many encyclicals and pronouncements on secular political and economic trends. The collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc was achieved not just through the actions of major Western powers, but through the outspokenness of Pope John Paul II, whose homeland was under the yoke of the old Soviet order.

Shifting geopolitical trends in the Middle East and beyond, from the now disintegrated and discredited Sykes-Picot settlement to the rise of populism in Western democratic countries, have led to unprecedented political and social instability. Such are today’s challenges. As one attendee at the Human Fraternity conference said, “What happens here is an attempt to show that we are in this together and that across all our cultures and religions, these are the values that can never be lost. Let’s hope that this does not end here.”

This article was provided to Asia Times by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.


Asia Times has relaunched on www.asiatimes.com. Download our brand new native App for a sweeping selection of geopolitical and business news from across Asia.

Martin Newland

Martin Newland is a former editor of The Daily Telegraph in London and The National in Abu Dhabi and deputy editor of the National Post in Canada. He holds a master's degree in pastoral theology, and as a journalist has covered religion and met two popes.

Join the Conversation


  1. I have been surfing online more than 3 hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like
    yours. It is pretty worth enough for me. Personally, if
    all site owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the net
    will be much more useful than ever before.

  2. Wow! This blog looks just like my old one! It’s on a completely different subject but
    it has pretty much the same page layout and
    design. Wonderful choice of colors!

  3. Awesome site you have here but I was curious about if you knew of any
    message boards that cover the same topics discussed here?
    I’d really like to be a part of community where I can get advice from other experienced people that share the same interest.
    If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Thanks a lot!

  4. Hey there, I think your website might be having browser compatibility issues. When I look at your blog site in Safari, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other then that, wonderful blog!

  5. Great post. I was checking constantly this blog and I am impressed!
    Extremely useful info specially the last part 🙂
    I care for such information a lot. I was seeking this certain info for
    a long time. Thank you and best of luck.

  6. Excellent weblog here! Additionally your web site rather a lot up very fast!
    What host are you using? Can I get your associate
    link in your host? I wish my web site loaded up as quickly as yours lol pof natalielise

  7. Hello there! I could have sworn I’ve visited your blog before but after looking
    at a few of the articles I realized it’s new to me. Regardless, I’m definitely delighted I found it
    and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back regularly!

  8. Hey I know this is off topic but I was wondering if you knew of any widgets I could add to my blog that automatically tweet my newest twitter updates.
    I’ve been looking for a plug-in like this for quite some time
    and was hoping maybe you would have some experience with something
    like this. Please let me know if you run into anything.
    I truly enjoy reading your blog and I look forward to your new updates.

  9. Heya i’m for the first time here. I came across this board and
    I find It truly useful & it helped me out much.
    I hope to give something back and help others like you aided

  10. This is really interesting, You are a very skilled blogger.
    I’ve joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your great post.
    Also, I have shared your website in my social networks!

  11. I was more than happy to discover this great site. I wanted to thank you for ones time due to this fantastic read!! I definitely loved every bit of it and i also have you saved as a favorite to check out new things on your web site.

  12. Howdy! This post couldn’t be written any better!
    Reading through this post reminds me of my old room mate!
    He always kept talking about this. I will forward this post to him.
    Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *