By Robin Gomes
Pope Francis is in the United Arab Emirates on Feb. 3-5, in what is the 27th Apostolic visit of his pontificate outside Italy.
When he landed in Abu Dhabi Sunday night, he became the first Pope to set foot on the Arabian Peninsula.
The theme of this landmark visit is “Make me a channel of your peace”, and this is represented in the official logo of a dove carrying an olive branch.
This trip intends to be an urgent appeal to the region and to the world to pursue values of peaceful coexistence and to overcome prejudice and allegiance to divisive ideologies, sects, and political parties.
An important highlight of the Pope’s first full day in the UAE, is an interfaith meeting at Abu Dhabi’s Founder’s Memorial.
Several faith leaders are in the UAE capital for this inter-religious meeting. Stefan Von Kempis of Vatican News caught up with three of them to find out about what they think about it.
Bishop Camillo Ballin
One of them is Italian Bishop Camillo Ballin is the Vicar Apostolic of the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, the official Catholic Church jurisdiction in charge of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
He told Vatican News he appreciates the interfaith meeting because its purpose is to create better relations among people. The Pope’s visit in
Bishop Ballin explained that he prefers the term “fraternity” to “tolerance
The Apostolic Vicar hoped the visit of Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi will continue in the future with visits to other Gulf countries.
Bishop Munim Younan
Another participant in the Feb. 4 interfaith meeting is Munib Younan, the Bishop Emeritus of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. Bishop Younan served as the president of the Lutheran World Federation from 2010 to 2017.
He expressed his pleasure to be able to participate in the interfaith meeting for two reasons. First of all, he said the presence of Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar with the religious leaders is very symbolic, sending a message that the problem in this world is not Christianity and Islam but the extremists among Jews, Christians and Muslims.
The presence of the Pope, in itself, he said, is building reconciliation among the various religions.
The Pope’s visit, Bishop Younan, is also highlighting the issue of Arab Christians. Many in the world, he pointed out, don’t actually know that Arab Christians have been in the region since the Pentecost. As equal citizens of the Arab and Muslim world, they have been promoting and upholding many values even today. Arab Christians are the guarantee of building a modern civil society, respecting human rights, freedom of religion, equal citizenship, gender justice and freedom of expression.
“We are a balancing power in the Middle East,” Bishop Younan said, expressing satisfaction that this is being highlighted by the Pope’s visit and the interfaith conference.
Another point he highlighted was that their meeting was taking place in the first week of February, which is the United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week, Feb. 1-7, initiated by King Abdullah II of Jordan. Harmony with humanity, he said, is very important for the participants in the interfaith meeting and for all in a time of populism and racism.
He explained to Vatican News that even if the meeting were propaganda, it gives a message that the world is calling for harmony, not populism, racism, hatred of the other, antisemitism, “
“We religious people,” Bishop Younan stressed, “have to build harmony, justice and peace in our world, including in Jerusalem.”
Rabbi Michael Schudrich
The Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, is also among the invitees at Monday’s inter-religious conference in Abu Dhabi.
He said the fact they are together “breaks stereotypes”, such as a Rabbi can’t be in an Arab country or a Muslim and a Jew can’t speak to each other.
He said he comes from a country where 3 million Jews and 3 million Christians out of a population of 30 million were murdered during World War II. Hence as a religious leader, he has an “extra responsibility” to look out for any possibility for peace so “that kind of horror should never happen again”. And the interfaith meeting during UAE’s Year of Tolerance is a chance, Schudrich said.