Will He Tackle the Real Issues? Pope Francis in the UAE

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Pope Francis visit Panama in January 2019 (Photo: RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis visit Panama in January 2019 (Photo: RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the United Arab Emirates Sunday, Feb.3, 2019 where he will meet with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the armed forces. He will also conduct a private meeting with the Muslim Council of Elders at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

The official purpose of his trip is to participate in the “International Interfaith Meeting on Human Fraternity.” The fact that the leader of the Catholic Church will also say a public mass for over 100,000 Catholics—the first papal mass ever in the Arabian peninsula—certainly presents an element of hope for peace in the Middle East. However, as per Francis’ record on Islamism, let us not get our hopes up to high.

There is a surprisingly large Christian population in the UAE, the Catholic portion of which approaches a million people — mostly migrant workers without any political rights. Naturally, as leader of the Catholic Church, Francis has a responsibility towards his flock. But the buck should not stop there.

Last year, the UN Human Rights Council raised concerns over the UAE’s torture of prisoners, injustice against foreign workers and discrimination of women. It also voiced its worry over the Emirate’s 2014 counter-terrorism law under which anyone over the age of 16 found to “undermine national unity or social peace” can be sentenced to death.

The report condemned as well the suppression of freedom of expression, which includes criticizing the government for its human rights violations, as with the case of Ahmed Mansoor, who was sentenced in May 2018 to 10 years in prison for calling for democratic reform in the UAE and sharing his opinions on social media.

Moreover, according to Human Rights Watch, the UAE has committed war crimes through its participation in the Saudi-led proxy war in Yemen against Iran.

These are all issues that Francis should address while in the country.

The pope’s trip to the UAE—and to Morocco in March—is being compared to St. Francis of Assisi’s voyage to Egypt in 1219, when St. Francis met the Sufi-inclined Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil. The difference is that the saint’s purpose was conversion, not reciprocal understanding.

Will the pope address the UAE’s poor human rights record or will he maintain a realpolitik approach as he did in Egypt last year — that of just assuring the exercise of public worship of his own faithful while saying nothing of the laws that sanction harsh punishments for blasphemy against Islam?

Since becoming pope, Francis has made dialogue with the Islamic world a priority, anthropologically putting Islam on equal footing with Christianity. We should not be surprised of his religious syncretism, however, because this has been part of the Vatican approach to Islam since Pope John Paul II held an interfaith meeting in Assisi in 1986 and declared there is truth in all religions — something St. Francis did not agree with.

In 1995 John Paul II lauded the opening of the first mosque in Rome; four years later, he even kissed the Quran.

His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, maintained diplomatic ties with Muslim countries, but his disposition toward Islam was quite different (as expressed in his Regensburg address in 2007).

What have been the results of Francis’ relativism with regards to Islam? I maintain they have been an increase of persecution of Christians at the hands of Muslims, further aggression towards Israel and a complete disavowal of any responsibility of by the Islamic body politic for their human rights violations.

What then should we expect when Francis lands in the UAE? I would be pleasantly surprised if he were to raise before both Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed and the Council of Elders at least some of the aforementioned violations — especially the UAE’s inhumane operations in Yemen (i.e., the killing of hundreds of civilians in airstrikes), the torture of detainees, the raping of women and girls, and using child soldiers as young as eight.

I do not wish to be a cynic, and while I do hope that I am wrong, I imagine that Francis will toe the politically correct party line. He will applaud the UAE’s “efforts” towards peace, recall that Islam is a religion of peace and declare those who disagree with this assessment antagonists.



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Mario Alexis Portella

Portella holds an MA in Medieval History from Fordham University in New York and a double doctorate in Canon Law and Civil Law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. Portella is an American priest at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy and Chancellor of its archdiocese. He is the author of Islam: Religion of Peace? - The Violation of Natural Rights and Western-Cover-Up.

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