What is ― and is not ― special about Pope Francis’s journey to the Arab peninsula? [ABC]

It is always a good thing when initiatives are undertaken to further better understanding and co-existence between peoples. The Papal visit to the United Arab Emirates ought to be seen in that light. At the same time, the way such initiatives are often framed, and the claims they make, need to be critically examined ― if for no other reason, because all too often many of the claims are simply unsubstantiated. In this case, it is the claim that interfaith tolerance in the Arab world and Muslim communities is something of a rarity.

One way of framing the visit that was proven wrong relates to the expectation that Pope Francis would visit the UAE without making any criticism of Abu Dhabi. That is his usual pattern: avoid criticism of his hosts while in country, and make a sensitive intervention before arriving. But he didn’t follow that pattern in this instance.

Despite exhibiting the utmost diplomatic politeness upon arrival and throughout his trip, Francis urged religious leaders on his trip to reject the “miserable crudeness” of war and warned that the future of humanity was at stake unless religions come together to resist the “logic of armed power … the arming of borders, the raising of walls.” Francis explicitly cited Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya, as he made clear that “no violence can be justified in the name of religion.” Just before leaving Vatican City, Francis appealed for an end to Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, saying the “cries of these children and their parents rise up.”

But there was another way of framing the visit that remains rather problematic. Many proclaimed the “historic” nature of the Papal visit ― particularly to “an Arab country.” For example, David Ignatius of the Washington Post tweeted:

The implication is that “Arab countries” do not generally invite popes in this day and age, because such countries are generally intolerant. This is not quite the case, however.

While it is true that a visit such as that of the Pope does indicate a certain type and degree of tolerance, it isn’t as unique as many believe. Sure, it is the first visit of a Catholic Pope to the Arabian peninsula in living memory, that much is correct ― but other popes, such as the Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros of Egypt, have visited previously. There have been masses celebrated on the Arab peninsula for hundreds of years, up to and including the modern day, in most countries on the peninsula, if not all of them. Engaging in Christian worship isn’t particularly new there.

Indeed, many press reports indicated that what made the Papal visit especially noteworthy was the fact that the Arabian peninsula is the “birthplace of Islam” ― but, of course, Christian worship has taken place since before the Prophet was born in Arabia, during his lifetime, and has continued since. After all, it was the Prophet who invited Christians to engage in dialogue with him in Madina, one of Islam’s holiest places, and then allowed them to engage in their religious rituals ― in, one should add, his own mosque.

When it comes to this Pope and his travels to Arab countries, it turns out that this visit is not unique at all. During his papacy, Francis has already visited Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. Next month, he is scheduled to visit Morocco. He has received and accepted invitations from Tunisia, Iraq and Sudan, though the dates of those journeys have not been confirmed. Beyond the Arab world among Muslim communities, Francis accepted invitations to visit Turkey, Albania, Bosnia, Azerbaijan and Bangladesh.

My point is not that Pope Francis’s visit to UAE isn’t “special.” It is. There exists sectarianism in the Arab world, and some Christian communities suffer greatly the consequences of that sectarianism, suffering horrifying violence. Moreover, other religious communities have faced terrible situations, including the Yazidis, who faced genocide at the hands of the ISIS. There are many victims of egregious forms of religious intolerance the world over: from the Uyghurs in China to the Rohingya in Myanmar, both Muslim minorities who have endured terrible hardships at the hands of their respective states. Even in Italy, in the Pope’s own backyard, there are resurgent forms of right-wing populism intent on targeting minority communities such as Muslims and Jews. Intolerance and bigotry in all these cases exists, even while the extent and type varies – and should be condemned.

Any efforts that might go some way in pushing back against the wave of religiously-connected intolerance should be welcomed. At the same time, it would behove us to do so while remembering that tolerance and peaceful co-existence aren’t new to modernity ― in some places, particularly outside the West, they represent a well-established model.

Dr H.A. Hellyer is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Atlantic Council. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Cambridge Muslim College, and a visiting professor at the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation in Kuala Lumpur. He is the editor ofThe Islamic Tradition and the Human Rights Discourse, and author of Muslims of Europe: The “Other” Europeans, A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt and A Sublime Way: The Sufi Path of the Makkan Sages.

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